The exchanges between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition often reach a stalemate stage, and it feels as if that is where we are now with Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer. When a new principal arrives, the incumbent does no really know what to expect, and with a new style, a fresh intellect, a different approach, the novice can make some remarkable headway. It happened with Hague v Blair, Cameron v Blair, even (in the early weeks) Corbyn v May. But then the incumbent learns some effective response techniques, and it settles down. Starmer ran rings around Johnson in the early days, but Johnson now prepares a lot harder for PMQs than he used to (which might also have something to do with personnel changes at No 10) and now it’s all a bit Western Front circa 1915.
Starmer mostly focused on a series of “gotcha” questions. Will business rate relief be extended? And the furlough scheme? And the ban on evictions from residential properties? Starmer (a man who believes in process) knew full well that he was not going to get a straight answer, particularly to the first two, because they are scheduled as announcements for the budget, but he succeeded in making Johnson look moderately evasive. Only moderately, though, because many observers will have understood why Johnson did not pre-empt budget announcements today – and on all three points he strongly implied that the current protections would be extended. This was followed by an exchange about the border controls which added very little to what was said on this last week.
The exchanges did half-confirm a Sunday Times story (paywall) that Starmer wants to make Labour “unashamedly pro-business”. Since Brexit has strained the Conservative party’s links to business to breaking point and beyond, there is clearly some potential in this line of attack, although whether there is much support for this strategy within the Labour party may be another matter.
Starmer’s best moments came with two retorts to Johnson. The allusion to Johnson’s “fuck business” jibe will not get on the TV news, because the context would need explaining, but Tory MPs will have registered it. What will get on the TV news, though, may be this.
I’m not going to take lectures from a man who wrote two versions of every column he ever wrote as a journalist, proposed Donald Trump for a Nobel peace prize and gave Dominic Cummings a pay rise.
Starmer is normally scrupulously accurate, unlike Johnson who is normally anything but. But this comment is Johnsonesque in its accuracy. Johnson did not write two versions of every column he wrote; just the Brexit one. He did not recommend Trump for the Nobel peace prize. (Johnson said: “If Trump can fix North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal then I don’t see why he’s any less of a candidate for the Nobel peace prize than Barack Obama.” But Trump did not fix North Korea, or the Iran nuclear deal, and Johnson seemed to be implying that Obama did not deserve the Nobel peace prize either – a sentiment also shared by Obama himself.) The bit about Cummings was true, though.
That said, as an attack soundbite, this was good. One of the reservations about Starmer is that he is a bit too high-minded for politics; that he’s not prepared to get his hands dirty, and deploy the sort of half-truth invective common in political campaigning. Perhaps that might be changing.