Artillery Row Sketch

In which Sir Keir eats Mr Johnson’s cake

Starmer’s first order is last orders for pubs

Keir Starmer was having, as he might put it, a moment. For months, Labour’s approach has been to support the government’s strategy for tackling the virus, while criticising the implementation of that strategy. No more.

He began his press conference by reciting the same numbers that Boris Johnson had given the House of Commons on Monday: more people in hospital than at the start of the first lockdown, cases rising across the board. But then their paths diverged.

If I owned a pub, I’d be feeling pretty worried right now

Just above his left shoulder, Labour’s slogan was positioned in such a way that the news broadcasts won’t be able to edit it out, a more tasteful branding than that used by sponsors of post-match football interviews, but essentially the same approach: “A New Leadership”. It’s not a subtle message, but it’s not supposed to be. “The lunatic with the beard’s gone,” it says. “Are you sure you still want the posh haystack?”

It’s a cliché to describe Starmer’s style as prosecutorial, but that’s really what it is: the Queen’s Counsel summing up for the Crown. His manner was calm and a touch sad, in place of his predecessor’s shrill anger. The prime minister had promised this on this date, and that on that date, and the jury would surely recall that this was “not supported by the evidence”.

“That’s why I’m calling for a two- to three-week circuit break in England,” he said, dropping his bomb. This is a polite way of referring to a return to full lockdown – only schools would stay open in Starmer’s plan. There are two reasons for an opposition leader to call for something: because they think it should happen, and because they think it’s going to happen, and they want to get there first. If I owned a pub, I’d be feeling pretty worried right now.

“I also want to say this directly to the prime minister,” Starmer went on, looking down the camera like a policeman using a press conference to get a message to a kidnapper. “You know that the scientific evidence backs this approach. You know that a circuit break is needed now. Act now, break the cycle. Release the country unharmed and we can end this without any more violence.” (I may have imagined some of that.)

If Boris Johnson was paying attention to the House of Commons, he was probably already feeling besieged. A four-hour debate on the latest set of virus regulations had turned into a long session of criticism.

Herd immunity is now all policy under the bridge

Matt Hancock had opened for the government, explaining why there was no alternative to the current plan, whatever it is. Much of his speech was directed at his own side. What he was trying to say was that their hopes that the virus could be dealt with by going back to normal while protecting the vulnerable were reckless wishful thinking. He couldn’t put it like that, not least because in other key areas “reckless wishful thinking” is pretty much government policy.

“Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity,” he said. “We should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity.” We have all now forgotten that the government began the crisis by announcing it was pursuing herd immunity. It’s all policy under the bridge.

The Health Secretary also wanted to tell MPs how wrong they were about test-and-trace. To listen to them, it was months late and had lost a load of cases because the people running it were ill the day their computer course covered Excel. But in fact, when he spoke to international counterparts, “They ask the question: ‘how did you manage to build this capacity so fast?’” Truly, a health minister is not without honour, except in his own country.

If you want to know how bad it got after that, put it this way: Labour’s Jon Ashworth launched a pretty brutal attack on the government, implying among other things that some of the local lockdown decisions were being guided by whether the areas in question were Tory, and his speech was still one of the more supportive ones. At least Ashworth backed tighter controls on pubs.

If Number 10 have lost Danny Kruger, they should just give up

Conservative MPs were furious. Christopher Chope accused the government of arrogance. Imran Ahmed Khan said he couldn’t look his constituents in the eye if he voted for the measures. Even Danny Kruger, a Tory so mild and gentle that he’s approved for use on babies, a man so loyal that he defended Dominic Cummings’s eye-test road trip, was critical. If Number 10 have lost Danny Kruger, they should just give up.

One of the most thoughtful speeches came from John Redwood. “The only way forward is to get maximum buy-in by the public,” he said. “There needs to be more energetic reliance on persuasion and less on formal rules.”

In the vote that followed, there were, including tellers, 44 Tory rebels (and 18 abstentions for whatever reason – and with Johnson there are always lots of reasons), and the government was saved embarrassment because Labour abstained. The government’s persuasion effort needs to start in Parliament, because it looks very much like Johnson has lost the Commons.

Much later, a “senior government source” accused Starmer of being “a shameless opportunist playing political games.” Coming from Johnson’s office, it’s possible it was intended as a compliment.

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

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

Critic magazine cover