Like a striker lacking confidence from a goal drought (Harry Kane springs to mind), Keir Starmer was badly in need of a PMQs win. And thanks to Boris Johnson’s unique combination of complacency and tone deafness, he got one.
The Labour leader came in for some stick last week for failing to pick up on a late Dominic Cummings rant about Matt Hancock (I still think it was smarter to focus on the PM’s border policy and the Delta variant spike). But this week it appeared he was taking to heart the Substack Svengali’s latest advice to “Kick Tories up and down the street on violent crime.”
As it happens, I’m told Starmer wasn’t aware of that particular Cummings line and in fact the focus this week on criminal justice was part of his new strategy of picking a few topics and ramming them home. Asking Johnson, repeatedly with increasing cold anger, why 98.4% of reported rapes don’t end in a criminal charge left the PM stumbling and mumbling.
Johnson’s attempt to accuse Labour of being soft on sentencing looked as lame as it was obvious, with Starmer ridiculing the idea that sentencing was even relevant when so few rapists ended up in court in the first place.
The PM was the one who sounded like a quibbling lawyer when he cited “considerable evidential problems, particularly in recovering data from mobile phones” in his defence. “There is not a good enough join-up across the criminal justice system,” he then admitted, before claiming he was “addressing” the problem.
This was classic Johnson, distancing himself from previous Tory cuts as if this was the second year not the 11th year of Conservative rule. A mix of ‘not me, guv’ and ‘not my govt’, the tactic has worked effectively whenever the austerity charge is levelled at him. What the PM calls “the blessed sponge of amnesia” certainly worked a treat in the general election.
Often it feels like a Blairite trick, updated for the 2020s, a kind of ‘New Tories, new Britain’. One Labour MP tells me he attended a social event with some very confident Tory ministers recently, “and to hear them you would think it was like us in 1998, at the peak of our powers, not 11 years in”.
But for once, this was a social distancing too far. Johnson tried to cite a recent rise in Crown Prosecution Service staffing, but when set against the decade of failure it felt superfluous. Starmer was merciless in response, pointing out that years of cuts to the CPS, 25% cuts to the Ministry of Justice and closing half the courts collectively dwarfed a small increase in budget of late.
Starmer’s best line however was when he said: “I spent five years as Director of Public Prosecutions, prosecuting thousands of rape cases.” That’s a line his allies want him to say again and again and again, replacing ‘rape cases’ with ‘terrorist cases’, ‘violent crime cases’ and more.
Some around him have been frustrated at the lack of emphasis on his security credentials, especially when contrasted with Johnson’s own decadent life politics. In the coming months, the public may get to hear a lot more about the ex-DPP’s record (though he can’t give the full detail of the terror plots he managed to foil).
Starmer was also canny enough to use evidence to the Home Affairs committee just minutes before PMQs, when victims’ commissioner Vera Baird said the government’s current plans to improve rape conviction rates was “underwhelming”. It was Baird’s previous quote – “in effect, what we are witnessing is the decriminalisation of rape” – that Labour deployed with a Cummings-like brutality earlier this year.
When Johnson used his prepared line that “they jabber, we jab”, he invited further charges that he was dismissive of the lived experience of women up and down the land. And when he finally apologised for the way “the trauma” suffered by rape victims in the criminal justice system, it felt cursory and dragged out of him. Imagine if he had opened with a heartfelt apology instead.
Street security, national security and job security are key themes Labour believes it can use to prove the party really has changed, together with a “tough on the causes of crime” style approach to youth services and “preventive public services”. In coming months the party will need such sharp definition, and so will Starmer.
But the biggest task is to use every opportunity to tell the public this is not a ‘new’ government but an old government - with form as long as your arm.