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Harold Macmillan said it made him “physically sick”. Tony Blair said it was like being led every week to the “execution table”. Every PM says they hate PMQs, but the fact is that it’s as much of a struggle for leaders of the Opposition too. Even those who notch up jousting victories (William Hague, Ed Miliband) can end up getting hammered come the real contest of a general election.
Yet when you’re a new party leader, miles behind in the polls with a rump of MPs behind you, it still provides an invaluable shop window to grab the public’s attention. Keir Starmer knows he won’t be winning many if any parliamentary votes in the next few years, but he can ‘win’ PMQs and, more importantly, look like a prime minister-in-waiting.
In his first sparring match with Boris Johnson, Starmer didn’t achieve a knockout but he undeniably won on points. That’s because he asked all the right questions about the coronavirus pandemic: continuing worries over testing, care homes, protective equipment and the dominant fact that the UK has now the highest number of recorded deaths in Europe.
Starmer managed to get over his main strategic message that the government had been too ‘slow’ to react to the crisis. But he also used the prop of No.10’s own graph showing how badly the UK was doing internationally, and quoted scientific adviser Angela McLean’s own warning that “we need to get to grips” with why so many old people were dying in care homes.
For someone sometimes accused of being too nice to Johnson, he showed a ruthlessness too in citing the PM’s ill-advised phrase about our “apparent success” in fighting Covid-19. His barb about four days of sub-100,000 daily tests for the disease - “What does the prime minister think was so special about April 30 that meant that testing that day was so high?” was further proof that he prefers the rapier to the meatcleaver.
And as the PM unveiled a new ‘ambition’ to get to 200,000 tests a day by the end of May, the Labour leader again plugged away at the gap between capacity and reality. New figures put out at the No.10 press conference made the point for him. The PM often talks about ‘flattening the curve’, but the curve for testing looks all too flat right now.
And although the number of deaths and of cases of coronavirus is thankfully falling, it appears the peak is turning into a long plateau. Johnson once boasted he would ‘squash the sombrero’ but the current asymmetric graph now looks more like a misshapen Stetson. That means a long tail that will make his exit from the lockdown all the more precarious, and give Starmer more time to keep looking back at the sheer bulk of the mountain so far.
There’s no question that Johnson is a formidable political operator, not least on the campaign stump. Meanwhile, Starmer has yet to prove he has really changed his party in the voters’ eyes. His handling of his own general secretary’s appointment will be an acid test of how good he is at providing answers of his own, rather than asking questions of others.
By contrast, the PM has that X-factor that cheers his own party and can often cheer up the nation. He currently enjoys huge public support and could even get a feelgood factor going when he partially lifts the lockdown on Monday (meet your friends outdoors, visit a pavement cafe, the overnight briefing suggests).
His vow today that he has “absolutely no intention of returning to the A-word [austerity]” will have plenty of appeal to the blue collar conservatives in those Red Wall seats he’s made his own. If, as ex-No.10 Labour adviser Gavin Kelly wrote today (see below), Johnson takes up the young Winston Churchill’s attack on the ‘national evil’ of poverty pay and insecure jobs, Labour could be left squeezed more than ever.
Never forget that at the last election Johnson also pulled off the extraordinary sleight of hand of dissociating himself from the Tory governments of the past decade, presenting his administration as almost brand new.
Yet Starmer began today to show that even Johnson can’t outrun the old adage that with power comes responsibility. No one wished it on anyone, but this coronavirus pandemic is on his watch, the Labour leader’s charge sheet says. The PM showed signs of trying some political distancing from the worst aspects of the crisis, saying that the lack of PPE was “enraging”, that the death toll was “appalling”, almost as if he were not the one in charge.
But as the PM looked around the chamber for support for his words, there was no one. Instead of the usual roars of approval he would normally get from his massed ranks of new MPs, there was a strange Zoom-disjointed quiet. And even when the noise returns, Starmer showed there may be no hiding place in the Commons any more, no retreating behind an easy quip and a wall of sound. Forced to rely on facts and argument not bluster, Johnson will have to raise his own game.
PMQs over the next four years will be fascinating. We could see the chamber turn into a bully pulpit for the high priest of populism, or a dock for the defendant. Starmer’s main challenge is to avoid looking like he’s sniping from the sidelines, especially as many voters think the PM is doing an impossible job well. But his approach of quietly damning questions - ‘how on earth did it come to this?’ was clever because it was unanswerably open-ended - could prove very effective if it catches the public mood.
This week, Matt Hancock suggested he didn’t like Rosena Allin-Khan’s “tone” as she listed government failures to date. Yet you can bet that the tone No.10 is most worried by is Starmer’s, that polite but firm prosecutorial voice that rings in their ear.
Quote Of The Day
“This should be a new golden age for cycling.”
Boris Johnson risks an ‘on your bike’ moment as he floats alternatives to mass transit commuting
Wednesday Cheat Sheet
The UK officially became the country in Europe with the highest death toll from Covid-19, with 30,076 people recorded as dying from the disease.
The actual total figure of direct and indirect deaths could be as high as 54,000, according to a former ONS statistician.
Boris Johnson revealed that the first relaxation in social distancing measures would take place next Monday, the day after his address to the nation.
The PM said it had been easier to build up testing capacity “on the way out than it was as the epidemic took off”, citing “particular difficulties” at the time.
The PM’s spokesman clarified that when he set a new target of 200,000 tests by the end of May, he was referring to ‘capacity’, not actual tests.
Scotland Yard said that it was not taking any action against Professor Neil Ferguson after he had accepted responsibility for his error of judgment in breaching the lockdown conditions.
What I’m Reading
Churchill, Johnson And The Low Paid - Gavin Kelly
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