By Arj Singh
The shadow health secretary has rejected calls for the formation of a national unity government to tackle coronavirus.
Jon Ashworth also dismissed the idea that the Labour leader or other senior opposition figures should be allowed into government emergency Cobra meetings or be part of a cross-party committee.
The idea of involving Labour in the government has reportedly been circulating among Tory MPs, with former minister George Freeman calling for the new Labour leader, likely Keir Starmer, to be included in a “Covid cabinet”, Cobra and joint No.10 briefings.
But Ashworth said the opposition needs the “freedom and flexibility to ask tough questions”, and to be able to act as an outlet for the public, highlighting the fact that virology labs have been in touch to warn of a shortage of chemicals and equipment required for coronavirus tests.
The Leicester South MP also predicted there would “probably” be a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic once it is over.
Ashworth told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast that his meetings with health secretary Matt Hancock and prime minister Boris Johnson show that cross-party working is possible without formalising the arrangement.
He said: “I don’t think we need a unity government because it’s important that I as the shadow health secretary have the freedom and flexibility to ask the tough questions.
“Behind closed doors I’ve been tougher in some of the meetings than perhaps I would be in public, I suppose.
“But it’s still important that we get the opportunity to ask questions of ministers.
“And by asking questions and putting forward a constructive alternative we are improving our nation’s response to this crisis.
“I think that’s an important part of parliamentary democracy.
“I think this sort of national unity gossip – I don’t think it would be an offer anyway, in truth.”
Asked whether the Labour leader should be invited into Cobra, or a government coronavirus committee, he said: “I have been in to see Matt Hancock; our shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti sat down with ministers; Jeremy Corbyn and I went into Downing Street to meet Boris Johnson.
“There are discussions that have been going on and I’m sure those discussions would continue.
“I don’t think we necessarily need a sort of formal committee for the sake of it. I’m not sure that would add when serious, sensible grown-up discussions are going on all the time.”
Meanwhile, Ashworth said he would be “astonished” if there was not some form of public inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis.
“I suspect there probably will be an inquiry,” he said.
“Lessons will have to be learnt and I would be astonished if there’s not some inquiry into this in the future.”
He went on: “Obviously there will be inquiries into the handling of it, it’s inevitable – there will be select committees. There will be parliamentary debates. I’m sure there will be inquiries.”