This was it, the one we have been waiting for. The Leader of the Opposition versus the Prime Minister. The El Classico of British politics in normal times, a central plank of government accountability in this time of crisis. Postponed by the virus for so long, now set to kick off in a nearly empty chamber.
If this had been a boxing match, and indeed Prime Minister’s questions on more raucous days can resemble gladiatorial combat, you might expect a pair of such seasoned fighters to weigh each other up, to test each other’s defences, before committing to trading blows. Not so today. Parliamentary scheduling allows little time for such skirmishes, and in any case, the events of the past month demanded that they approach the heart of the day’s business expeditiously.
Keir Starmer opened with a broadside on death figures, noting that over 30,000 deaths are not a ‘success, nor is it apparent success’, and demanded of Boris Johnson ‘how on earth did it come to this?‘. When Johnson said that not all the data was there and that it was too early for international comparisons, he was reminded that the government had been making precisely those comparisons in its briefing slides. Moving on, Starmer noted that it had been 12 weeks since the Health Secretary Matt Hancock had declared a public health emergency, and yet the government still had not got to grips with the epidemic in care homes. Starmer used figures he was able to defend as the government’s own. Johnson, notably, did not have much of an answer to this. He talked about the fact that he ‘bitterly regrets’ the situation, and that there was a huge effort underway, with his critique of Starmer’s figures brushed off as mentioned. On testing, Johnson attempted to claim that there was a gap between supply and demand and that about 100,000 tests a day were being carried out. This disregarded the point that the number of tests had slipped below 100,000, standing at 84,000 on Monday, as Starmer had pointed out. Johnson did, however, more successfully defend the reason for the shelving of contact tracing, saying that with the rise in transmission the capacity was overwhelmed and that it would be easier to build up the team on the way out of the outbreak as opposed to going into it.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) May 6, 2020
But Johnson frequently seemed rattled, and not as in touch with the details as his opponent. He lacked direct and convincing arguments. Starmer, however, put in as good a performance as he and his team could have hoped for. Maintaining a courteous tone, but injecting a direct firmness into his questions, he took Johnson to task with admirable proficiency and command of his argument.
Johnson fared much better in taking questions from the rest of the House, regaining some of his usual bombasts, and dealing decisively with questions about support for councils and furloughed workers. About the end of the furlough scheme, however, and the job losses likely to result, he claimed that the priority of the government was getting people back to work. As you will have noticed, this sidesteps the issue of whether or not there will be work to go back to. An exchange with the SNP Ian Blackford saw him commit to following the science and avoiding political posturing, in response to Blackford’s point about the Secretary for Scotland’s comments about Scotland exiting lockdown in ‘lockstep‘ with the rest of the UK.
Interestingly, Johnson also categorically said that there would be no austerity after the end of the crisis.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle made two interventions in the debate, one to remind the house that no political slogans should be visible behind candidates calling in after a Labour MP appeared with an old campaign poster behind him. The other was to express to Johnson his hope that any future statements on government policy would be given first to the House and then to the public. This came after Johnson previously announced his intention to announce the government’s exit strategy on Sunday when Parliament does not sit. Given Johnson’s rocky relationship with Hoyle’s predecessor, it looks as though we can expect more tensions between the Speaker’s chair and the despatch box in the future.
This edition of Prime Minister’s questions was a promising start for Starmer, and Labour will be buoyed by his success. For the Government, there will be questions about the next steps.