Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
It is a truism that a week is a long time in politics. In the intervening time between last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions and this week’s edition, the UK’s official death toll from coronavirus had exceeded Italy’s, becoming the worst affected country in Europe, and the second-worst afflicted in the world. In the same time period, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had announced the first step in relaxing the country’s lockdown. Add in the ongoing crisis in care homes and clearly there was much to discuss.
In honour of International Nurses’ day, tributes were paid to nurses working in the NHS in both Starmer’s and Johnson’s opening statements. The tragedy of the death of Belly Mujinga, a ticket inspector who died of coronavirus after being spat on by someone who claimed they had the disease, was also highlighted.
Johnson appeared somewhat caught off guard by being called to the despatch box, spending a couple of endless moments shuffling his papers before embarking on his opening statement. Starmer displayed no such hesitation. Why, he asked, had the government guidance up until the 12th March been that infection of care home residents was very unlikely, considering that the Office for National Statistics said that deaths in these homes accounted for 40% of the total? Boris Johnson’s reply was that it wasn’t true that this had been the guidance, a rather strange response considering that there was ample evidence to the contrary and that the guidance had been given with the caveat that there was a lack of transmission in the UK. This prompted a letter from Starmer later that day.
As part of his point regarding care homes, Starmer remarked that the monthly deaths in care homes were three times the average for this period over the past 5 years, a figure of 26,000 deaths. Starmer quoted a cardiologist who stated that patients were discharged into care homes even if they were confirmed, suspected, or possible cases of coronavirus. To this, Johnson appeared to have little in the way of direct answers, saying that the figures were going down and that there was a huge effort underway to deal with the outbreak in care homes.
Another good moment for Starmer was when he noted that the government no longer includes a graph of where the UK’s death toll stands, in relation to other countries, in its briefings. Johnson’s claim was that making international comparisons was premature. Starmer, in his reply, remarked that this seemed to coincide with the UK having the highest death toll in Europe, and the government had had no problem making the comparison before this milestone was reached. It was, at its heart, a fairly basic ‘gotcha’ moment, but no less effective for it.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) May 13, 2020
But we can see a pattern developing here. Starmer, marshalling an impressive portfolio of evidence, asking simple questions that go right to the heart of the matter. Johnson, lacking direct or accurate responses to most of the evidence against him, resorting to acknowledging how terrible everything is without accepting culpability, and pointing to what the government is doing without talking about what it has done. It may work for Johnson for now. But the question lingers as to what will happen when the dust settles and people feel secure enough to be more critically-minded.
Ian Blackford, sticking to his main theme of relations between Westminster and Scotland, claimed that the weekend had been terrible for co-operation between the devolved governments and London. The divergence in approaches across the UK followed the announcement, by central government, of changes to the coronavirus restrictions and the accompanying slogan. Johnson said there had been effective co-operation across all four nations, despite statements having been made to the contrary by the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, while Northern Ireland has made no changes to their regulations.
Questions from the rest of the house were fairly pedestrian, with some criticism of the time it took for repatriation of UK citizens abroad to be achieved. A memo appeared to have gone around the Conservative backbenchers that they should draw attention to the government’s commitment to sustainable technologies and development, with a pair of MPs obliging. Caroline Lucas of the Green Party also raised environmental issues, but with a much less complimentary tone. A couple of Conservative MPs took the opportunity to promote their local area’s initiatives and ask for Johnson’s endorsement.
Overall, Johnson did not have a good day at the office, a contrast to Starmer’s methodical approach that appears to be steadily racking up the points. There were questions for the government after last week: they’ve only gotten more urgent.