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Artillery Row

No more Mr Nice Guy

Starmer fails to land a blow on a Boris Johnson who is up for a scrap

PMQs returned today after the intrusion of a Whitsun recess that permitted the prime minister to escape Commons grillings into his handling of L’affaire Dom and the other fumbles that have triggered diminishing public confidence in the government.

So, the coconut shy was set-up, but would Keir Starmer take aim? Tempting it must have been to hark back to Dominic Cummings, perhaps linking his peregrinations near Barnard Castle to more recent pictures of a carefree public not treating social distancing with the revernce that was formerly its due.

The cheap shot was there for the taking, but Sir Keir held his fire. Whilst parliament was not sitting, journalists have happily filled the PMQs void by asking the tough questions. What more would the leader of the Opposition bring to the microphone? What further bluster would the prime minister respond with, other than to suggest that it was time the Labour leader noticed that particular circus had left town?

Another coconut ready to feel the impact from Labour’s hot-shot sharpshooter was the incoming 14 days quarantine for everyone (lorry drivers, seasonal farm-workers and Covid-19 medical support excepted) coming into the UK from 8 June onwards. The despair felt by the country’s aviation industry and the one million jobs that directly or indirectly depend upon it – to say nothing of the wider tourist sector – is being channelled by Conservative MPs at the home secretary, Priti Patel. Surely, here was the opportunity for Sir Keir to point out that the government’s plans were a case of too much too late?

But no. Quarantine leaves Labour in a quandary. Should the party attack the measure as a job-destroyer? Starmer has positioned his party as broadly supportive of the gradual easing of lockdown, but always erring on the side of caution rather than initiative. Opposing quarantine would contradict this approach. So, rather than pin the prime minister down on a measure destined to inflict huge damage to the aviation and tourist sectors, Starmer decided to let the matter pass. Perhaps he thinks it wise to leave it to Conservative MPs to grill the home secretary while Labour spares the prime minister. It might, though, be better politics to associate the prime minister with the policy.

Instead, Starmer ranged widely and imprecisely, firing six unconnected questions at the prime minister, each of which Boris Johnson brushed aside as if it was a mild impertinence to be asked them. If, as is reported, Johnson was now fully taking control, Starmer wanted to know “who has been in direct control until now?” Too easy! The prime minister replied that he had always taken “full responsibility” and proceeded to trot off the achievements of the NHS having not been overwhelmed as feared and a death rate now in clear retreat.

Responding to a barb about being uncooperative, Starmer expressed dismay that the prime minister had not responded to the private letter he sent him two weeks ago offering to find a bipartisan union-teacher-parent consensus on the staged reopening of primary schools. But was the expression of such miff-taking entirely wise? It sounds needy for a leader of the Opposition to protest that the prime minister is too busy to answer his letters: sure, it may suggest the prime minister is bad mannered but it also airs the perception that perhaps the Opposition leader is not that central to events and the PM doesn’t need him. Johnson swatted the plea aside by pointing out. “I took the trouble to ring him up and we had a long conversation” during which Starmer had raised no objections to the government’s approach. The reality was actually a bit more complicated – the telephone conversation had been a scheduled call between the prime minister and all leaders of the opposition parties, but that technicality was let pass.

It sounds needy for a leader of the Opposition to protest that the prime minister is too busy to answer his letters

Starmer had little more joy attempting to goad Johnson on the failure to have a promised “world beating” test, track and trace system in place by 1 June, when the “the critical element – the ability of local authorities to respond to local spikes was missing”. Ignoring that “critical element,” Johnson was able to boast that in fact the test and trace system was up and running by 1 June and doing remarkably well. Perhaps Starmer would have been better asking about whatever happened to the promised tracking app.

Starmer ended his series of sliced kicks at goal by saying the scenes of MPs voting in lengthy lines yesterday were “shameful” given that continuing with the hybrid system would have allowed MPs with health vulnerabilities to vote from home, “a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equalities Act.”  Johnson responded with first a populist touch – if ordinary people were getting used to queuing then politicians should get used to it too and “do their job.” Secondly, he got to the partial u-turn, elderly and at risk MPs would henceforth be able to vote by proxy.

First up after the leader of the opposition was Jeremy Hunt who applauded the government on overseeing 200,000 tests a day, the top of the European testing league, and asked when the test results would all be delivered within 24 hours. In promising comprehensive 24 hour turnaround by the end of the month, the prime minister congratulated his former competitor for the party leadership for “the detailed forensic questions we could have had earlier on.” That jibe was meant to hurt Starmer exactly where he has been lauded for being strongest.

The civilities between prime minister and leader of the Opposition that helped Keir Starmer score early wins have ended. Debate continues as to whether the prime minister is fully recovered from his illness. But on today’s showing, he has decided upon one show of strength – he is no more Mr Nice Guy.

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