Artillery Row

Boris and Keir – best of frenemies

In struggling to get schools open, who should Boris fear more – SAGE or Starmer?

How far apart are the government and the Labour party – or at least its leadership – at the moment? At last week’s PMQs, Boris Johnson’s delivered his prepared soundbite about Keir Starmer that “our policy is test, trace and isolate, his policy is agree, u-turn, and then criticise.” The Labour leader looked rather like a hurt, blameless spouse whose only reward for several weeks of fidelity was the continuing disdain of a not-so-better half. He protested, “I have supported the government openly and I have taken criticism for it – but boy, he makes it difficult to support this government over the last two weeks.”

This Wednesday’s PMQs found Judy still dealing stoically with abusive Mr Punch. The Prime Minister, as he is otherwise known, dealt ably enough with the Labour leader’s opening questions on racial disparity. Starmer wanted to know when the government was going to implement the findings of the seven reports published in recent years on the subject, particularly the Lammy Report into inequality in the criminal justice system, the Windrush recommendations and Professor Fenton’s report into the high Covid-19 incidence among BAME communities. Johnson countered that these reports were commissioned by the Conservative government and many of their recommendations were indeed being implemented. Starmer would have had to use up his remaining questions getting to the nub of what remained outstanding, including straying on to contentious ground, so instead wrapped-up with “it’s a serious issue and we can make progress together.”

And what progress, the Labour leader believes, might have been possible on getting primary children back into school had the Prime Minister answered the now famous private letter that the Labour leader had long ago sent him offering to do his bit to achieve consensus on opening schools. This triggered a second week of reproaches about whether Johnson’s telephone call with all the opposition party leaders should be considered as a sufficient reply and the Labour leader’s alleged lack of complaint on that telephone dial-in was indicative of compliance with the government’s strategy – if there was a strategy. This “I did/you didn’t” dispute is a diversion, planned or otherwise. But it risks gnawing away at the Labour leader’s sense of equanimity nonetheless. He showed his frustration with Johnson by repeating that “the task force has never been a subject of conversation between him and me one-to-one or in any other circumstance on the telephone, and he knows it.”

Never mind who did or didn’t commit what to whom, the substantive question concerns what Starmer’s education “task force” could actually have delivered? Predicated on the idea of getting all the stakeholders together to find common ground, it would nevertheless have come-up against a force even less naturally amenable that the teaching unions – classroom architecture.

the suggestion that Boris Johnson would be a prime minister best suited for the ease of good times is a prediction we may never get to test.

This week’s retreat by Gavin Williamson on getting other primary years back to school before the commencement of the summer holiday has illustrated the limits of the government’s power in a society still choreographed by a two-meters of separation rule. The Health Secretary could rapidly scale-up spare capacity in the NHS by commissioning the (as it transpired surplus) Nightingale hospitals. In a critical care ward, common sense and PPE trumps two-metre rules distancing nurses from patients. But the two-metre rule does apply to tiny tots (the demand to encase every child in PPE has yet to gain traction, even on Twitter). Consequently, knocking-up instant additional classrooms across England’s 20,000 primary schools is not a rapidly scalable proposition. That is why it is an unfair comparison to equate Williamson’s failure to create additional classroom capacity with Matt Hancock’s ability to have seven temporary critical care facilities magicked into life (except of course, that Williamson’s critics do make the dubious comparison, unchallenged).

It is impossible to disagree with Starmer’s expressed desire that “we all want as many children back into school as soon as it is possible and as soon as it is safe.” But “as soon as it is safe” is a get-out clause. Does that mean now? Or when there is a vaccine or when there are no cases anywhere in the land? Or only when 20,000 schools sprout a maze of temporary classrooms and other social distancing facilities? His appeal for “a robust national plan, consensus among all key stakeholders and strong leadership from the top” made the news headlines along with his disappointment that the government had failed each of these tests. Put like that, the government really is on a hiding to nothing.

It is also possible to perceive why Boris Johnson has decided to stop taking Keir Starmer’s reasonableness at face value and to instead imply that the Labour leader’s support is clear in principle but slippery in practice. The prime minister rattled off another of his prepared accusations, inviting his opposite number to be less negative and give “a bit of encouragement to some of his friends in the left wing trades unions to try and get our schools ready.”  But the greatest impediment on this government in getting Britain back to normal is neither Sir Keir Starmer nor the National Education Union. It is rather the extent to which ministers feel they cannot take political decisions that will be contradicted by SAGE experts. If this is a time for leadership, then it may involve discarding the shield of “following the scientific advice” – which is always likely to be risk averse.

Doing so could be the bold, winning strategy if few ill effects result. But what if the virus duly returned with a vengeance? As things stand, the suggestion that Boris Johnson would be a prime minister best suited for the ease of good times is a prediction we may never get to test.

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