Tory ‘attack dog’ reheats failed ploy used against Starmer to go for Rayner

One of the most senior politicians in the Labour party is facing persistent questions about her personal affairs. The police are investigating after pressure from a Tory MP, despite initially saying there was no case to answer. The story has been relentlessly pursued by the rightwing press.

If the playbook sounds familiar, that’s because the Conservative MP pulling the strings behind the Angela Rayner living arrangements saga is the same one who consistently led the charge over the “beergate” controversy involving Keir Starmer.

Back then, Richard Holden was an ambitious Tory backbencher, representing the seat of North West Durham, who spotted an opportunity to cause some trouble for the Labour leader and deflect attention from Boris Johnson after the Partygate scandal erupted.

As a result of that operation – which ended with Starmer being cleared by police but was nevertheless viewed by the Tories as a great success – Holden’s reputation within the party as a tenacious attack dog grew until Rishi Sunak appointed him Tory chairman in November 2023.

This time, his team’s target is Rayner. The strategy is similar – look for an opportunity to land a blow and then repeatedly punch the wound, drawing out the pain for as long as possible by drawing in the authorities, in this case the council, the police and potentially HMRC, even if she’s ultimately found to have done nothing wrong.

The allegations over Rayner’s living arrangements in the 2010s and the sale of her former council house in Stockport first surfaced in mid-February in an unauthorised biography, Red Queen?, by the billionaire Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, which was serialised in the Mail on Sunday and pushed hard by Holden’s CCHQ operation.

The paper’s story, the first of 79 on the subject over the following two months, accused Rayner of hypocrisy after the book revealed she made a £48,500 profit on her ex-council house thanks to the right-to-buy policy.

The attack line gained little traction, so the Tories moved on to allegations that Rayner may have lied about the location of her primary residence to avoid paying capital gains tax on the sale.

They demanded answers from her after she insisted she lived primarily in her own home, while former neighbours had said she was living a mile away with her husband.

James Daly, the Conservative MP for Bury North and Holden’s deputy at Conservative headquarters, first asked Greater Manchester police to investigate whether she had given false information or had broken electoral rules in March. They found no evidence that any offence had been committed.

An emotional Rayner pleaded for privacy as she told reporters that there was “never a question of deceitfulness” or “conspiracy” over her living arrangements, but that she had a “difficult” family situation at the time.

One Labour insider said: “There’s an old-fashioned sense about what life is like but actually there’s lots of Britons that do live in blended families these days. People do recognise that ordinary people’s lives aren’t all like the Waltons.”

On the day of Labour’s local election campaign launch on 28 March, she said that she would not publish the “personal tax advice” she received on the sale of her house – unless her Tory critics did the same.

“If we’re all going to have a level playing field and we suddenly decide that Conservative ministers need to hand over their tax affairs, if you show me yours, then I’ll show you mine.”

Later that day, Keir Starmer said he had “absolute confidence” in his deputy, although he admitted that he had not personally seen the tax advice. Shortly after the police announced that, following a complaint, they would reassess their decision not to investigate.

Rayner, according to her aides, is entirely confident she has done nothing wrong, which is why – when the police confirmed last week they would investigate after all – she pledged to step down as deputy leader if she was found to have committed a crime.

Stephen Watson, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, told BBC local radio on Tuesday that Rayner was under investigation on a number of counts. But he added: “That is a neutral act. It does not imply that the information gives us any hard and fast sort of evidence upon which to base anything at this stage. It is simply: we have an allegation, we are going to get to the bottom of what has happened.”

The force has not publicly said what it is investigating, although reports suggest that a team of at least a dozen officers will examine tax matters and potential election law offences arising from Rayner’s electoral roll registration.

One Tory HQ insider admits that it’s “puzzling” as HMRC usually investigates tax offences while prosecutions under election law must be made within 12 months of an alleged offence.

Even Daly, who initially contacted the police, has struggled to say what he thinks Rayner has done wrong. “I asked the police to investigate certain matters that were in the public domain regarding … certain things,” he said during an cringeworthy Sky News interview.

Rayner’s allies are confident she will be cleared, suggesting that her legal and financial documents – which could include utility bills, payslips and bank account details – would clearly show that her own home was her primary residence.

But they admit that while she knows public figures can legitimately be asked questions, and is a “tough and resilient” person who regularly gives Tory MPs as good as she gets, she is concerned about intrusion for her family’s sake.

With all the indications being that the police investigation will take weeks, the attention is likely to continue to overshadow both her private life and the local election campaign.

Rayner has already been “ambushed” by Tory activists wearing “tax adviser” high-vis vests and has been repeatedly asked about the row on regional media rounds. “It’s a distraction from what people really care about,” a Labour source admits.

Starmer has doubled down on his support, even though it would leave him exposed if she is found guilty. “We’ve got a billionaire prime minister and a billionaire peer, both of whose families have used schemes to avoid millions of pounds of tax, smearing a working-class woman,” he said at PMQs.

Not all Tory MPs are convinced by the strategy, however, and several are understood to have approached Rayner in recent days to share their discomfort. “It’s not a good look,” one asked. “Do we really want to get into this territory?”

Others are concerned that pushing senior politicians to disclose their private tax and legal arrangements from before they entered parliament could set an tricky precedent.

But Holden’s team at CCHQ is unapologetic. “It wasn’t a case of ‘let’s go for Angela Rayner’, the Ashcroft book just presented an opportunity,” said one insider. “It struck us right from the start that if we pulled at one thread then potentially others would come loose.”

The Guardian