THAT was a strong performance by Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, no doubt.
There’s no question he’s doing a much better job at the despatch box than Jeremy Corbyn, and landed the killer blow in exchanges with a jittery PM, once again. When Boris Johnson quipped that Starmer should “abandon his slightly negative tone” – obviously the best attack line Dominic Cummings could come up with – a stony faced Starmer responded that “34,000 deaths IS negative”. You could hear a pin drop as Westminster hacks notched up another direct hit for the new Labour leader.
It’s also true that Starmer managed to expose the most extraordinary double standards over the insurance payment foreign care workers must pay to access the NHS. Even though foreign NHS staff saved his life, the Prime Minister brazenly refused to waive the shameful surcharge and claimed the best solution was higher pay for all NHS staff. I almost choked on my coffee. Tories including himself voted against a very modest nurses’ pay rise and we all know it.
Nervousousness about the imminent dissection of his leader, doubtless prompted Matt Hancock’s noisy heckling, which won the Health Secretary his first yellow card from speaker Lindsay Hoyle. After which Starmer extracted a new promise from Boris – that a track-and-trace scheme will be “in place” by June 1, along with 25,000 trackers to trace the expected 10,000 new cases a day.
Now that’s a very important commitment, because if it fails to happen (and no target’s been delivered on schedule so far) kids will be going back to school in England without a system in place to monitor any new spread of Covid-19. And it’s precisely this fear of a chaotic, unmonitored and unsafe return to school on June 1, that’s caused teaching unions, up to 31 English councils and some of the government’s own scientific advisers to risk their careers and funding by openly flouting Boris’s school re-opening date.
The first signs of a climbdown could be seen before Prime Minister’s Questions, when cabinet minister Robert Buckland said the picture across the country might not be “uniform”. Later Downing Street announced that June 1 was only the earliest possible date for any re-opening, not mandatory for all schools.
Well, well. What an about-turn.
But it wasn’t achieved by pressure from Keir Starmer during PMQs. Why not? Because the Labour leader doesn’t actually disagree with the idea even of a mandatory, England-wide June 1 restart date.
But then he doesn’t totally agree with it either. Great.
On a massive dilemma that faces every English parent, teacher, school and council in less than a fortnight, the leader of the official opposition doesn’t have an opinion.
Likewise on Brexit, the Labour leader can be found sitting firmly on the fence.
READ MORE: SNP MP says Keir Starmer is talking ‘risible tosh’ about four-nation plan
Last week Starmer rejected SNP calls for the Brexit transition period to be extended, saying he would rather “the negotiations were completed as quickly as possible”. Really. The last chance to agree a further extension is just weeks away, and if none is agreed, the UK will leave the single market at the end of the year without a deal – creating even more chaos, disruption and economic damage than the recession-inducing Covid lockdown. But the Labour leader says that while he doesn’t think it’s practical to agree a deal by December, he wants to “see how we get on” in talks.
Ring a bell?
Yip, it’s precisely the same “facing both ways on vital issues” that terminally eroded confidence in Corbyn.
Powerful leadership, it’s not.
All of which raises a question.
Who is really leading opposition to Boris Johnson today? Keir Starmer or a political leader who’s not even present in the Commons? She’s not been grinding any petty party-political axes, but Nicola Sturgeon has boldly gone where the new Labour leader still fears to tread on issues like schools re-opening and a Brexit extension, offering real leadership and a consistent alternative to Boris Johnson’s “plans” and managing to take her party and electorate along with her.
Can Keir Starmer say the same with his “mibbes aye, mibbes naw” position?
The Scottish Government has quietly developed its own policy on re-opening schools and, ironically, it’s one that would also suit those northern councils and English teaching unions.
THERE will be no rushed return to school in Scotland, but instead a careful and staged re-opening after August 11, probably with part-time, not full-time classes. And astonishingly there’s been no real outcry.
The Scottish Government’s stance seems to fit so closely with parent expectation, scientific opinion and World Health Organisation advice, there’s not even been a squeak from the Scottish Tories.
So why does Nicola Sturgeon’s ability to take a clear stance on vital strategic issues seem to elude Sir Keir?
Obviously, Scotland has a devolved government that can take its own decisions, while Starmer is only an opposition politician. But that’s precisely why you’d expect more boldness from him.
Instead it seems Starmer’s worried about backing critics of Boris Johnson’s school restart date, lest he’s accused of politicising the crisis or having a hopelessly cautious, naysaying, pernickety approach that contrasts badly with Johnson’s ebullient, Bunter-like optimism. Doesn’t this alone make you despair about the dynamics of English politics?
Yet Scotland’s First Minister is living, breathing proof that taking a different line and explaining it well, regularly and in person can win trust and plaudits – not just at home but (as the latest opinion polls show) all over Britain. Even Sarah Smith’s lamentable attempt to impute political motive to Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid strategy earlier this week was (finally) slapped down so hard within the BBC that its embattled Scotland editor had to apologise three times on Twitter. That’s not because BBC Scotland noticed a problem.
It’s because the suggestion Sturgeon is milking the crisis is plainly ridiculous.
There are, of course, big, difficult questions for the FM to face. But they all argue for a stronger deviation from British norms and Tory policies – not cosying up.
If Starmer plans to collect only the low hanging fruit of opposition, objecting only to the truly epic fails of the Johnson Government, he will disappoint, no matter how well phrased and succinct his questions at PMQs.
Sure, all left-leaning voters can see the dangers of a Flash Harry chancer in Number 10. But having an uber-cautious leader of the official opposition is really no better, if he’s so feart of his own shadow (and splits within his party) that he avoids making decisions and taking sides.
Last weekend, the fairly mild-mannered Labour mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham warned that the revolt against Johnson’s end-to-lockdown plans will grow in England unless Boris listens to council leaders outside the south-east.
London is seeing a halving of the infection rate every 3.5 days and should reach zero new Covid cases on (conveniently) June 1. But the north-east of England and Yorkshire are recording more than 4000 new cases daily, with the north-west on 2380 new daily infections. That’s why so many English councils – many Labour-led councils in the north – don’t want to be rushed into an over-hasty school re-opening.
But ironically, they have had more suport by the calm example of a different approach in Scotland than they’ve had from their own party leader.
There’s something far wrong with that.
Keir Starmer must decide whose side’s he’s on in the stand-offs that lie ahead, otherwise Labour supporters across the whole UK might conclude that on the really big issues, Starmer has doubts – while Scotland has leadership.