At PMQs it is often assumed that the key task for the leader of the opposition is to “land a blow” or “deliver a knockout punch”. That can be important, and in an understated way Sir Keir Starmer does it well, but an equally vital skill is the ability to avoid, to dodge, and at that Starmer is even better. He must be driving them bonkers in No 10. Every attempt that Boris Johnson makes to lay down a dividing line, with Starmer on the wrong side of it, fails.
In the past we’ve had ‘Starmer, the friend of IRA-loving Jeremy Corbyn’, which collapsed as soon as Starmer started talking about his record as DPP, and ‘Starmer, the Brussels-supporting remainer’. This fantasy got an outing last night on the CCHQ Twitter account, but Johnson did not try either of these lines of attack at PMQs, with the result that his overall performance was less erratic than some of his other ones in recent weeks.
But only up to a point. Instead Johnson tried to depict Starmer today as someone opposed to the coronavirus restrictions – and, by implication, opposed to the whole national effort to fight the virus. One problem with this argument was that it was not clear whether Johnson was accusing the opposition of inconsistency (sometimes backing lockdown, sometimes not), or just accusing it of being hostile. But the main problem, of course, is that that charge just isn’t true, and Starmer established that quite clearly. (See 12.17pm.) That did not stop Johnson ploughing on at the end with a pre-scripted soundbite about Labour opportunism, but political messaging has to be at least half-true to be effective, and Johnson must have known he was peddling something inherently implausible.
It was another underwhelming performance. But not quite as underwhelming as some of his others, and at one point he almost got the better of Starmer. It came when Starmer asked what was an obvious question in the light of yesterday:
If the prime minister doesn’t understand the rules and his own council leaders are complaining about mixed messages, how does the prime minister expect the rest of the country to understand and follow the rules?
Johnson replied: “Actually, I think that the people of this country do understand and overwhelmingly do follow the rules.” And this worked because, broadly, it is true. (One of the most extraordinary features of the coronavirus crisis has been how compliant people have been overall, despite the fact that there is little risk of people facing sanctions for not following the rules.) But then Johnson ruined it by saying people were doing what they were told “in spite of the efforts of [Starmer] continually to try to snipe from the sidelines”. This just amounts to criticising Starmer for doing his job, and Starmer’s healthy approval ratings suggest that, as a jibe, it doesn’t work.
Starmer did deliver some clean hits too. Johnson did not have a decent answer to the question about lack of government support for businesses that just can’t operate now and his first two questions – why has just one area (Luton) come out of local lockdown, and what is the plan for the restrictions to be lifted everywhere else? – were excellent. Johnson was struggling to answer both. On Luton, he said that it was able to lift its local restrictions because “local people pulled together to suppress the virus”. That implied that millions of people in other parts of England facing similar rules were not doing likewise, quite a slur potentially, but Starmer chose not to pursue that. But he did not really need to. He won comfortably anyway.