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Labour really stuck it to the government today. The country has a soaring R rate thanks to “a complete failure to tackle the spread of the virus”. Ministers took too long to set up test-and-trace. More cash should go to businesses “now at risk because of its incompetence”. While public health is the priority, people’s jobs must now be protected.
But guess what? The government under fire was Nicola Sturgeon’s, and the country in question was Scotland. Yes, it was Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary (and only MP north of the border) Ian Murray who was scathing today about the first minister’s handling of the pandemic.
Sturgeon certainly made a huge call in going ahead with her 16-day crackdown on hospitality in Scotland, itself the kind of “circuit break” that Boris Johnson has been pondering but so far has refused to commit to. And the criticism she faced just underscored that for any party in government, this is a really tough time politically.
Sturgeon’s huge advantage is that – unlike Johnson in England – her party is way ahead of Labour in the polls and her personal popularity is still very high. However, although both leaders have long taken comfort from the fact that most of the public back tough restrictions no matter where they live in the UK, patience with their performance may be starting to fray among both business leaders and battle-weary residents suffering local lockdowns.
But while Labour has long been critical of the Scottish government, Keir Starmer has stuck to his “constructive opposition” approach with their Tory counterparts in London. Until today, that is. The gloves really came off in Prime Minister’s Questions as Starmer hounded the PM over the 10pm curfew, test and trace and lack of help for local lockdown areas.
Johnson performed better this week, yet still had few answers to the direct questions on why he had not published scientific evidence for the curfew, why test and trace was still failing or why some areas were in lockdown when other (Tory MP areas) weren’t despite similar Covid levels. As ever the best PMQs are the unanswerable ones, and asking why the virus was still soaring in Bury, Burnley and Bolton (all seats taken by the Tories from Labour, note) despite lockdown exposed that perhaps Johnson is as baffled as anyone else.
As roadtested in his interview with me last week, Starmer also managed to turn the “Captain Hindsight” jibe back on Johnson. “The prime minister ignores the warning signs, hurtles towards a car crash, then looks in the rear mirror and says, ‘What’s all that about?’ It is quite literally government in hindsight.”
Now it’s true that for a long time Johnson’s effective response to criticism has been to say: well, what’s your alternative then? For months, Starmer has insisted he is not trying to “second guess” ministers, and has no alternative plan. Today, his spokesman said Labour did have a credible alternative, saying it would fix test and trace, was the first to call for 24 hour testing, to call for German-style clarity on criteria for lockdown/unlockdown and so on.
It may be that Gogglebox Labour voters have sparked this more confrontational approach. But it’s more likely that Starmer is once again doing what he did on Brexit, iterating his stance as he goes along while keeping that strategically patient eye on his big strength: an image of competence compared to repeated government failures that directly affect millions.
Starmer does know that this is a very tricky balancing act and that the public dislike carping. Given he wants to rebuild bridges with business and need to save jobs, he can’t call for tougher lockdowns without strong cause. Yet the sight of him at least trying to provide alternatives could pay off politically.
Next week’s vote on the 10pm curfew is already causing ministers a real headache precisely because Labour could for the first time oppose the government. But if he does go down that route, Starmer will have to make crystal clear what his alternative is to curfew. A 11pm closing time with matching shop alcohol sales (as in Northern Ireland as some ministers want)? A Scottish style firebreak closure of some pubs completely?
Crucially, Starmer knows that Johnson is going to have to impose yet further tough curbs in some areas and that the PM is constantly in fear of being seen to blame the public for any sharp rise in hospitalisations and deaths. It’s not inconceivable he could just make the government squirm, then back it or abstain next week, while waiting for Johnson to make himself more unpopular with tougher curbs.
Most important of all, having overpromised things would be back to normal by Christmas, Johnson is now open to the Starmer charge that he really was asleep at the wheel when he should have been preparing this summer for a winter of discontent.
The PM said in July he was hoping for the best while planning for the worst. He still has a fair amount of goodwill, but If the public think he did the former and not the latter, he and his party really will be in trouble. And not just in Bury, Blackburn and Bolton.