Charles McQuillan/Leon Neal/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Finding the dividing line

Starmer seeks to trap Johnson on detail. But the future of the furlough scheme is really where the debate should head

Keir Starmer has his critics, most of whom appear to be within his own party. But his tactic of constructive opposition is popular where it matters, which is to say Tory MPs fear it and the wider electorate are quickly warming to it.

This strategy is best observed at PMQs where he states his broad support for the government’s Covid-19 response strategy whilst identifying where the delivery is poor and the government can be portrayed as being asleep at the wheel. This twin-track of backing the overarching strategy whilst criticising the detail also allows Sir Keir to expose Boris Johnson’s preference for generalities over specifics.

Given the scale of the crisis and the breadth of the response, Sir Keir’s approach can hardly fail.  Government finds itself making vast commitments whilst expecting the public sector to be almost instantly geared-up to deliver them in circumstances that would test the greatest of administrators.

If Jeremy Hunt had won the leadership election last summer (let alone Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister last December) his government would have started with the same disadvantages: the absence of a UK-based diagnostic industry at the outset capable of the demands that would be placed upon it, and the same scramble to secure adequate PPE supply. Could another leader have explained to NHSX how to make its track and trace app work? Most of all, Anyone-But-Boris would have inherited an overarching approach influenced by the UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy of 2011 that has not proved a suitable template for tacking the Coronavirus. As Jeremy Hunt has subsequently assured Parliament, “It is now clear that a major blind spot in the approach taken in Europe and America was our focus on pandemic flu rather than pandemic coronaviruses, such as Sars or Mers.” The error was “one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes”; it would have misdirected whoever was prime minister.

So, if the strategy was wrong then truly we were all in it together. But Boris Johnson’s problem when he began facing Keir Starmer at PMQs in May went beyond having to be the face of the failures and short-comings. What was most worrying was that Johnson did not sound as if he was on top of the detail. A perceived lack of grip could scarcely be more damaging in the midst of a crisis.

Those who had never rated the former Mayor of London pointed out that he had required six deputy mayors in his first terms and seven of them in his second term to run City Hall. Yet, it is not actually clear that such reliance on others rather than being a one-man Mussolini is proof of unsuitability for high office. After all, who has a dig at Sadiq Khan who currently requires ten deputy mayors to do the same job?

Boris loyalists retaliated that a man who was in intensive care after a severe attack of Covid-19 and who emerged from it to become a father again in his 56th year only to have his convalescence cut short by demands that he “take charge,” might be entitled to be a couple of Berroccas short of maximum vim. He needed time.

So it has proved. The last three PMQs have narrowed the performance gap between prime minister and leader of the Opposition. The most obvious difference is that Johnson has recovered from his illness. The confidence is back. There is Helium in the balloon again. In addition to having restored energy levels, he has also devised better ways of dealing with Starmer’s prosecuting QC-style approach.

Boris has been a couple of Berroccas short of maximum vim

Attack has been the prime minister’s preferred means of defence. Back in May his inability to account for the shortcomings about which he was being probed was laid bare. During June, however, Johnson started to counter-attack, trying to turn PMQs into Leader of the Opposition Qs. In particular, he fired cheap but effective shots about whether Starmer could talk about social inequalities without sufficiently distancing himself from the teaching unions that were advocating keeping schools fully closed.

Today’s PMQs featured part of the familiar routine: Starmer asked questions of detail. This time, the sparring came with Johnson replying with facts and figures which, for once, were not clearly questionable. In particular, the Labour leader sought to suggest that the government had not given Leicester’s mayor all the information the city needed to implement its temporary lockdown earlier. Johnson was ready for this – the mobile testing units had been sent to Leicester on 8 June and both pillars of the data had subsequently been at the council’s disposal. Whether this was the whole story and the failure to interpret data was Leicester’s fault rather than Whitehall’s, Johnson demonstrated he had enough ammunition to blunt Starmer’s attack.

The Labour leader then moved on to a different line of argument concerning what the government was going to do about the coming job losses in retail and hospitality. This is but an early sip of what will become bitter gulps to come – for if the threat from Coronavirus continues to recede, then the mass unemployment that will be left in its wake is the inevitable and necessary issue for Labour to make its own.

The problem is that the Opposition could hardly ask for the Government to spend more that it is doing, not only in terms of the loans and furlough schemes it has put in place to keep companies afloat but the massive infrastructure investment programme that is to follow. To yesterday’s slogan of “build, build, build,” Johnson today added “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

These jobs will take time to materialise and will not immediately rescue the majority of those who will find themselves unemployed when the furlough scheme finishes at the end of October. The Treasury believes that a V-shaped recovery will be squashed into a very broad U-shape if the furlough scheme is extended further. Employers need to decide whether they’re going back properly into business or not. Their re-absorbing the full payroll costs will force them to face reality.

But it is a cruel reality for those who will be cut adrift. Keir Starmer will be tempted to position Labour as their ally and to come out clearly for the extension (and then further extension, and extension after that) of the furlough scheme. Doing so would destroy the Treasury’s strained finances and risk retarding the economic recovery. But the short-term flood of support it would give Labour from those given extended life-support would be difficult to ignore. The prime minister needs to consider when would be the best moment to pin down the leader of the Opposition on whether Labour’s support for the government’s strategy extends as far as ending the furlough scheme. How Keir Starmer responds could mark the great dividing line that the last couple of months of PMQs has failed to draw.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover