Have Boris and Starmer worked out each other's weaknesses?

26 November 2020

3:12 AM

26 November 2020

3:12 AM

Sir Keir Starmer is continuing to use his Prime Minister’s Questions to build a narrative about the government’s lack of competence, particularly when it comes to awarding contracts. This has had varying impact in each session, but by returning to the matter on a weekly basis, the Labour leader is developing a theme. Today he attacked the government’s procurement process for personal protective equipment, pointing to an admission from ministers that they have purchased around 184 million items of PPE which are unusable.

Johnson’s retort to this question was very similar to the way he has dealt with all the others: he suggested that Starmer was displaying a ‘deep underlying hatred of the private sector’, and argued that – as the government statement which Starmer was basing his figures on made clear – 99.5 per cent of the PPE procured conformed to clinical needs.

Johnson also pointed out that Labour was criticising ministers for moving too slowly on PPE orders a few months ago, only to switch to claiming they were moving too fast now.

The funny thing is that this line of argument really exposes the problem with the government’s approach to PPE. Starmer’s switch does make sense because it is exactly what happened with the government’s approach to the pandemic: at the outset, there were shocking shortages of PPE, but now the government is having to spend £1 million a day to store a ‘PPE mountain’ at ports because there have been more orders than it is possible to process quickly.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard these sorts of arguments from the two party leaders, and it won’t be the last. Starmer will continue to ask questions which paint the Tories as incompetent and obsessed with handing contracts to their mates, while Johnson will continue to reply that Labour is ideologically opposed to a private sector that the country needs in order to survive the pandemic. The Prime Minister will also say that Starmer can’t make up his mind on what sort of attack he wants.

In reality, both men have made up their minds about what they want to say for the time being. Neither are moving the dial much.

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