By Paul Waugh
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Keir and present danger
The socially-distanced House of Commons was as quiet as a courtroom, so it was no surprise that Keir Starmer felt right at home for his debut PMQs. The former campaigning lawyer and Director of Public Prosecutions asked typically forensic and focused questions and – shock, horror – actually thought on his feet in response to the answers given by Dominic Raab.
Pressing on the bruise that is the government’s record on coronavirus testing and protective equipment for NHS and social care staff, Starmer carefully laid the foundations for what felt like will one day be the case for the prosecution on the Johnson administration’s failures in tackling this deadly disease.
Acutely aware that governments lose elections more than oppositions win them, ministerial competence is obviously going to be a key theme of the Starmer years. With Boris Johnson enjoying huge public backing for the lockdown and his party still way ahead in the polls, the Labour leader also knows that he has to act in the national interest while keeping his options open for the inevitable inquiry into all this.
That tricky balancing act was clear on his PMQs debut, and he managed to pull it off by raising the cases of 36 British firms who told Labour that their offers of personal protective equipment had been ignored. The issue managed to combine a dollop of patriotism (expect more of this, particularly on China and Russia) with the message that businesses felt safe enough with Starmer’s Labour to pass on their concerns.
More than anything, the big prize sought by Starmer’s allies is that he is seen early on by the public as an alternative prime minister. He’s fond of talking about providing ‘constructive opposition’ (a hint of a break with Jeremy Corbyn) but what he really means is ‘credible opposition’ (an explicit break with Jeremy Corbyn). Some Labour MPs are already saying he’s their first ‘grown up’ leader since Gordon Brown.
Starmer still injected some politics to the legalistic case he built, quoting a “terrified” member of the Covid-19 front line. And this was not just a care worker, this was “a Unison care worker”, a shrewd nod to the trade union that first endorsed his leadership and set him on the road to a landslide victory over his party rivals.
Still, it was Rebecca Long-Bailey who rightly pointed out during the leadership campaign that you can’t just “put on a nice suit and be a bit suave and think that’s a route into Downing Street”. One recent YouGov opinion poll punctured the Starmermania. When asked who would make ‘best prime minister’, Boris Johnson scored 46% to Starmer’s 22%. Some bloke called ‘Not Sure’ came ahead of Starmer on 28%, though he will see that as a big chunk of undecideds he can win over with a higher profile.
That may be why he tried to step up the rhetoric today with his final flourish that “we were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and now slow to take up those offers from British firms”.
His delivery didn’t exactly put the ‘bite’ into ‘soundbite’, but it was enough to rattle Raab, who made the error of sounding wounded (“If he thinks that he knows better than [the scientists] do, with the benefit of hindsight, then that is his decision..”) At another point, Starmer sounded like he was chiding a more junior lawyer (Raab was a solicitor not a barrister) as he said “I didn’t need correcting” on test figures.
When Starmer faces Johnson himself, he will face a very different enemy, and one that will have huge reinforcements once the Commons is out of lockdown and has packed benches once more. The Tory wall of sound will jeer Starmer as much as it cheers its leader who, unlike Raab, single-handedly won many of their seats. Both a mascot and a team captain to his troops, Johnson has the advantage of huge public sympathy over his own recent illness too. Whether the public prefer the PM’s broadbrush strokes to Starmer’s precision is what may ultimately decide the next election.
But a noisier Commons could help Starmer too. Even the reduced number of Labour MPs can still make a mighty row in the small space of the chamber and Starmer is likely to be cheered in a way his predecessor never was. TV soundbites need noisy reactions to underline the point, just as footballers need a cheering crowd to validate their goals. Today, Maria Eagle‘s heckles (“pathetic!”) seemed to raise Raab’s hackles, and proved that a bit of noise is actually as much of a help to the Opposition as to a government.
For all the talk of national unity, Starmer is not just socially distancing himself from the Tories, he’s politically distancing himself too. His calls for a clearer ‘exit strategy’ make him look ahead of the curve, while knowing just how difficult that will be to pull off – and how long it will take.
At today’s No.10 press conference it was not Raab but chief medical officer Chris Whitty who stole the show by showing some candour that ministers have so far been afraid to share. On the issue of care deaths (raised by Starmer), Whitty warned the numbers were underrepresented. But more importantly on the length of the lockdown, he said there was only an ‘incredibly small’ chance that either an effective vaccine or treatments would be ready before 2021. And “very socially disruptive” measures would be needed until then.
On the first day of his Labour leadership, Starmer said the coronavirus pandemic proved that there could be “no more business as usual” in the UK. On health policy and on the economy, he may well be right. The longer the lockdown, the tougher it gets politically for this government. Raab and Johnson know that huge polling lead will drop, though just how fast is anyone’s guess. Starmer still has a mountain to climb in seats too, but after today Labour MPs will feel the fightback has at least finally started.
Quote Of The Day
“We are going to have to do a lot of things for really quite a long period of time”
Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, on why life won’t be the same for quite a while
Wednesday Cheat Sheet
The number of people who died in care homes in England between 11 April and 15 April could double to 2,000, the CQC watchdog revealed. The number of deaths in UK hospitals in the past 24 hours increased by 759.
Health secretary Matt Hancock told MPs “we are at the peak” of the coronovirus pandemic in the UK. He also said that a contact tracing system will be ready “in a matter of weeks”.
Welsh government health minister Vaughan Gething was caught swearing about a Labour colleague in a virtual Welsh Assembly session after he left his microphone on by mistake.
Keir Starmer backed calls for the government to formally recommend people wear face masks on transport and in workplaces where social distancing is difficult.
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