Starmer’s weaknesses are on show at PMQs

16 July 2020

3:05 AM

16 July 2020

3:05 AM

Keir-mania. Is it possible? Can we imagine it? Stadiums full of besotted voters chanting his name in frenzies of adoration.

‘Star-Muh! Star-Muh!’

No. Never going to happen. Sir Keir tinkled his way through his six questions at PMQs hoping to trip up the PM. Instead he put his own weaknesses in the spotlight.

Far from being the ice-cool super-inquisitor, Sir Keir turns out to be thin-skinned and tantrum-prone. Boris enjoys tormenting him. When challenged, Boris likes to accuse the Labour leader of unpatriotic hypocrisy. Today, Sir Keir took the bait. When he criticised the government’s job retention scheme, Boris described his approach as disingenuous.

‘He has to work out whether he’s going to support or oppose the government’s programme.’

‘This is just such rhetorical nonsense,’ huffed Sir Keir. ‘It’s perfectly proper for the opposition to ask questions.’

He brought up the Covid sequel next winter and called for ‘intense preparations’ to prevent the Second Spike. Citing some dreary report written by government scientists, he demanded that the PM,

‘make clear that he intends to implement the recommendations of this report in full and at speed.’

His aim wasn’t to apply direct pressure to the PM but to elicit a quote which could be used against him later. That sort of smart alec trickery suits a Middle Temple hack hoping to expose a liar in the witness box. But at PMQs it looks obsessive and pernickety. Boris replied by boasting about the ‘unprecedented scale’ of the track-and-trace system. This scalded Sir Keir.

‘It’s no good him standing up every week and saying it’s a “stunning success” …. It’s obviously not true.’

He demanded to know if the PM had even read the scientists’ report.

‘Of course I’m aware of the report,’ said the PM, smirking a little at the deftness of his footwork. Finally Sir Keir invited Boris to speak directly to families whose loved ones have fallen to the virus.

‘I join with every member of the House in mourning the loss of everybody …’ said Boris.

Sir Keir isn’t learning from these weekly clashes. The meticulous, syllable-by-syllable cross-examinations aren’t working. And he repeats a mistake common with Boris’s foes: Sir Keir assumes that the PM is blind to the minute orientations of human psychology. In fact, Boris watches people very closely. Hence his ability to needle Sir Keir.

The anoraks and wonks at Labour HQ should reappraise their strategy. No one has noticed that Boris handles each group of questioners differently. He openly mocks Sir Keir. He scoffs politely at Ian Blackford. But he treats backbenchers, especially female Labour members, with a rapt and awestruck reverence as if he were communing with the spirit of the Queen Mother. He’s terrified of seeming boorish or heartless.

Labour’s Paul Blomfield asked him about care workers’ pay and suggested a 50 per cent rise. Boris almost vanished into a maelstrom of flannel.

‘Well Mr Speaker, I can tell the House we have all, already taken steps to support local authorities with a £3.8 billion programme… And we are incredibly proud of what our care workers have done.’

That’s his tactic in choppy waters. Praise the public sector and pump out impressive statistics. The ‘£3.8 billion’ figure is a favourite, for obvious reasons. It’s a Huge Sum of Money which makes him sound like a top gorilla. And the decimal point suggests that he’s a demon for the detail.

Labour should set up a ‘£3.8 billion Incident Room’ to investigate the promises attached to this oft-quoted figure.

And Sir Keir should relinquish his role at PMQs and transfer his questions to female Labour backbenchers. That might make the Bombshell quake.

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