© Jessica Taylor/House of Commons
Artillery Row

Does PMQs still matter?

Was William Hague overestimated where Sir Keir Starmer is still underestimated?

The leader of the opposition performed a classic PMQs ruse today, setting up the Boris Johnson before knocking him down. The trick here is to use your first question to get the Prime Minister to wholeheartedly lambast something, before revealing that it was in fact, his own fault. Labour’s social media clipping team will be very happy with the result, but does PMQs still deliver the goods for the parties looking for their hits?

Keir Starmer’s weapon of choice was the free school meals delivered to the parents of eligible children who can no longer get them at their now closed schools. Images circulating on social media show what families have got for five days worth of food which Labour MPs have branded disgraceful, partly because it looks like the selection would have cost closer to £5 than the £20 the taxpayer was charged. The Labour leader asked Boris Johnson if he would be happy for his own children to get the food, and if not why would he be happy for other children to receive it? While it’s always possible to read too much into even things as prepped at PMQs, you suspect the vagueness of ‘Boris’s children’ is not a polling plus for the Tory leader.

For better or worse, Keir Starmer is still only the tenth most famous Labour politician and trails the likes of David Miliband

Taking a course that he believed would lead him to safety, the Prime Minister carelessly walked into the trap. The images were “disgraceful”, “appalling” and “an insult to the families that have received them” proclaimed the PM, noting that the company who provided the food had “rightly apologised”.

With the trap sprung, a triumphant Starmer echoed Johnson’s words back to him, then brandished a document which he said was the Government guidance from the department for education. In his best hawker voice the former DPP bellowed that the example parcel for one child for five days included one loaf of bread, two baked potatoes, a block of cheese, baked beans and three individual yogurts. “Sound familiar?” he asked. Sir Keir punched the bruise by saying the only difference between this list and the “disgraceful” social media images was a tin of sweetcorn, a packet of ham and a bottle of milk.

William Hague’s frequent, pre-social media victories against Tony Blair show that ‘winning’ at PMQs hardly means you’re on course to win the next election. For better or worse, Keir Starmer is still only the tenth most famous Labour politician and trails the likes of David Miliband. And it may well be for better as far as the Labour leader is concerned. His lack of visibility includes a total Tory failure to define him, in the way that New Labour, for example, so quickly branded Hague as the definitive Toryboy loser. However, it certainly cheers up Labour MPs, even as their party still somehow hovers behind in the polls, despite the last pandemic year this government has just had. Keeping the PLP sweet is an underappreciated aspect of Starmer’s success as a party leader. It also stands in contrast with Boris Johnson’s congenital unwillingness to disguise his lack of interest in colleagues.

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