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Artillery Row

Starmer for the Prosecution

At his first PMQs, Labour’s new leader offered a masterclass in constructive opposition

Critics of the old-school format of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) were offered on Wednesday a glimpse of how it might otherwise be done. Gone were most of the elements that gave the weekly grilling its sense of theatre – the expectant buzz of the packed chamber, the noise, the heckling, the pantomime braying and cheap point scoring. The blood sport of the Colosseum has given way to the anaemic politeness of a performance review interview.

In the fortnight before the Easter recess, the tone in the house of commons was increasingly sombre as most (though not all) members concluded that their partisan differences – so striking during December’s general election campaign – had shrunk dramatically when measured on the coronavirus crisis scale that now weighs everything and everyone.

Such animal spirits that endured have now been further subdued by the sparseness of attendance in the social distancing chamber (scarcely thirty MPs were present in the chamber for today’s PMQs) and by the introduction of technology that allows for participation from home. The herd mentality has been neutered.

This first PMQs of the Zoom Parliament was without a PM. Deputising for the recuperating Boris Johnson in his capacity as First Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab speaks in a tone of voice so soft that it resembles a family GP reassuring a not very sick child. Perhaps it is well that today’s chamber was so empty or the First Minister’s words might not have carried at all. If a near empty chamber and a video feed cannot give Dominic Raab a fair hearing, then no place will. He has transferred the stonewall answer perfectly – too perfectly – from the 5pm Downing Street press briefings to the chamber of the house of commons. He offered no hostages to fortune. And few convincing grounds for hope either.

Normally when the prime minister is being deputised for, the opposition similarly rest their main man. But Labour has a new leader and not to have heard from him at this moment would have been odd and unsatisfactory. Like Raab, he eschewed the video call option favoured by the other opposition party spokesmen and women, and assumed his position at the despatch box.

Keir Starmer’s political career has yet to sparkle with flights of oratory. Well-turned phrases or witty put-downs do not come naturally to him. But right now, the house – and doubtless most of the country – is not in the mood for the glib taunt. Substance currently counts for considerably more than style. In his opening remarks, Starmer set out his pitch, that “we would give constructive opposition with the courage to support the government where that’s the right thing to do,” and whilst hoping that the government succeeds, “we also have to have the courage to challenge where we think the government is getting it wrong.”

His years practicing at the Bar make Starmer well suited to the role of inquisitor.

This approach abjures the assumptions that Jeremy Corbyn brought as opposition leader to almost every PMQs – that the prime minister and the Tory frontbench were essentially villainous individuals motivated by the personal enrichment of their billionaire paymasters to spit on the disadvantaged. That attitude of contempt for political opponents could not have readily adapted to the current dynamics.

These dynamics are clear. Starmer has to phrase his constructive opposition in a way that is coherent with three propositions:

  1. That in this crisis the government is not to be hindered in delivering sensible ways of saving lives
  2. in locking down non-key workers and paying furloughed staff wages, the government has broadly the right plan
  3. but the government is failing in critical areas to execute that plan successfully – and Labour’s task it to identify these failings, call them out, and seek solutions to them.

These three principles underscored the six questions that Starmer asked Raab. Never mind whether the lockdown is the right strategy, Labour is not remotely in the right place to ask this question. And in being instinctively drawn to a strong and directing state, Labour is unlikely to come to a more laissez-faire conclusion in any case. This, then, is not about criticising strategy but scrutinising delivery. Starmer majored on the two issues where delivery is most evidently struggling to meet demand – testing and PPE.

His years practicing at the Bar make Starmer well suited to the role of inquisitor. He starts with the general question to elicit a response and then – by listening carefully to that response – sifts through the answer to identify the part of it that needs to be subjected to further scrutiny.

This approach is a world away from Corbyn’s tactics, which were to arrive with six prepared questions and proceed to ask them without acknowledging the content of any of the answers they received. Lacking the mental agility to adapt to what he heard, Corbyn offered only accusations.  Starmer asked genuine questions, some of them couched in accommodating language as if helping the prime minister’s understudy to reveal more than he might wish to do.

By this method, Starmer succeeded in demonstrating that the government had boosted testing capacity but had not thought imaginatively about how busy people without their own cars could access it. They had put the test centres in the wrong places. Secondly, he revealed that the government did not know how many care workers had died from Covid-19. And thirdly, he suggested that bureaucracy was ensuring that British companies offering to supply PPE were not being prioritised. In consequence, they were selling their stock abroad. If the PPE was good enough for foreign hospitals, why not for ours?

This was not the over-elaborate setting of traps, merely prioritising key concerns about which the nation is keen to hear better answered. Raab blocked rather than swung the bat, although his riposte that there had been many cases of foreign hospitals risking their staff’s lives with PPE that hadn’t met proper due-diligence was plausible, as was his claim that, far from being overly bureaucratic, 3,000 British suppliers (of 8,000 who offered) were being prioritised because they had the necessary specification and sufficient volume to make a difference.

But it was Starmer who came off best, drawing together the punchline conclusion from his questions that, “there’s a pattern emerging here, we were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and now slow to take up these offers from British firms.”

Today’s first outing of the new interrogation-by-videoscreen may have lacked the theatre of traditional PMQs. But the technology worked well enough. And on the floor of the house a near empty chamber was treated to what has too infrequently been heard by a full house in recent years – a leader of the opposition asking the questions that are most on our mind in a way that is forensic rather than plain insulting.

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