Unopposed: why is Keir Starmer making life so easy for the PM?

The dangers of the Starmer-Johnson double act

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

If there is one thing worse than being talked about, it is not being talked about — and this is the fate beginning to befall Keir Starmer. He is at risk of becoming an irrelevance.

After not even a year of being Labour leader, Starmer finds his personal ratings on the slide: a YouGov poll this week showed his rating at minus 13, down from plus 22 last summer. Just over half of voters think he doesn’t look like a PM-in-waiting and Labour itself is consistently trailing the Tories in the polls. It’s not clear yet what Starmer stands for, and he is running out of time to make an impression on the public. There is some nervousness about the upcoming Hartlepool by-election despite the fact Hartlepool has never elected a Tory. This is telling. Opposition parties aren’t meant to be concerned about holding seats in a by-election a year into a parliament.

To be fair, Starmer took the job on in very difficult circumstances. Not only had Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership done huge damage to the party, but Starmer was elected leader just as the first wave of Covid was hitting Britain. His leadership acceptance speech and his party conference address were both delivered to teleprompters in empty rooms. But the bigger problem for him has been that voters have simply not viewed the virus as political, which is why Starmer has decided to suspend normal political combat and has recently been praising the vaccine rollout.

It’s disorientating for voters. For strategic — perhaps even patriotic — reasons, Starmer is choosing not to oppose: in some ways, he’s becoming something of a help to the Prime Minister. Trouble getting lockdown past Tory rebels? Don’t worry, Labour will lend its votes.

Perhaps the most striking example of the Starmer-Johnson double act will come in next week’s vote on whether lockdown powers should be extended for another three months and the emergency powers of the Coronavirus Act for another six. This would allow the government to bypass parliament — and, therefore, Starmer — for all kinds of decisions. You might think Starmer would be outraged. The Covid emergency, he could say, has passed, so why does government need emergency powers?

But there is no sign of Starmer preparing to vote against these measures. One Tory grandee, who has rebelled against the government in a lockdown vote, complains: ‘The stupidity of Keir Starmer is not insisting on votes every month. His position should have been “We support the government in using these powers. But parliament should have control”. How any opposition could have come to this position is bizarre. They have taken themselves out of the game.’

By joining Johnson in a pro-lockdown alliance, Starmer has rendered the parliamentary critics of the policy irrelevant. Rather as David Cameron once told Tony Blair he had no need to water down school reforms to appease the left of the Labour party, Starmer offered to support stricter restrictions so Johnson would not need to offer concessions to his own side. In the vote on the tiers system in December, he ordered his MPs to abstain: this, apparently, was his way of showing anger at how limited the support for hospitality was. One wonders how angry Starmer would have to be to actually vote against.

Labour’s approach means little opposition — which means a lack of proper scrutiny. Westminster is designed to be adversarial. The opposing parties are two sword lengths apart in the House of Commons; its architects did not envisage a system where the opposition would be in agreement with the government. The duty of HM Loyal Opposition is to oppose, because opposition means scrutiny, and scrutiny means better laws.

This week, Priti Patel pointed out to MPs that they had voted by 524-16 for the regulations that led to Saturday’s vigil for Sarah Everard being broken up by the Metropolitan Police. It is hard not to think that more scrutiny, more rigorous debate and, frankly, more opposition might have flushed out the consequences of such sweeping restrictions.

The police’s actions on Saturday night are a reminder that when MPs hand the state power, they can’t then determine how those powers are used operationally. On 6 January, few MPs would have envisaged they were voting for forcibly breaking up a memorial being held for a murdered young woman. But that is what the regulations they put on the books allowed the police to do.

This is why the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill making its way through the Commons is so dangerous. It would allow the police to break up protests which are so noisy that they might cause ‘serious unease’ and create criminal penalties for protests that lead to ‘serious annoyance’. One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to see that these terms are remarkably broad and give the police huge powers: it would be up to officers on the ground to decide whether a demonstration was causing ‘serious unease’ or not. This judgment is inherently subjective: do we really want police officers making these calls on a daily basis? It would lead to a permanent constraint of protest in a way that would sit uneasily with this country’s tradition of boisterous debate. As one senior Tory who intends to amend the bill says it would essentially make the current levels of restrictions on protest permanent. Even Theresa May, who was hardly a liberal Home Secretary, has voiced her concerns in the chamber about this section of the bill.

You would have thought that Keir Starmer, whose leadership campaign made much of his work defending poll tax and Twyford Down protestors, would have been straight out of the traps, howling about the injustice of arbitrary power. But it was only in the aftermath of the Everard vigil that Labour made clear it would vote against the bill.

This section of the Police and Crime Bill would be concerning at any time, but it is particularly concerning now. The state has taken on wartime powers and imposed huge restrictions on civil liberties to handle this crisis. Though these powers might have been necessary to slow the spread of the virus, there is a real danger that they’ll remain.

Unlike with a war, there’ll be no victory day, no surrender by the enemy. Covid will carry on providing rationale for restrictions for years to come.When society opens up, cases will increase, but the immunisation programme means that the health service should not be overwhelmed. A rise in cases is not in itself a good reason to reimpose restrictions.

Finding the balance between the power of the state and the rights of the individual will not be easy after the past year. We have got used to the government micromanaging lives (and subsidising jobs). Polls show public backing for nearly every tough lockdown measure. Some 59 per cent of voters think vigils and protests should not be allowed at the moment and it will take a conscious effort to redress the balance. The speed with which China suppressed the virus has left many in the West admiring the efficiency of a system that cares little for civil liberties.

Almost half the adult population in this country have now had their first dose of vaccine. The vaccines are about 70 per cent effective at stopping transmission, which is better than expected. Covid levels are 93 per cent below their peak. The case for the government to now lose its emergency powers — or not renew them for so long — as a result of this progress is there to be made. On a point of democratic principle, the state should not be able to take or renew such sweeping powers without intense debate.

The scenes in Clapham Common last weekend showed the consequences of poorly scrutinised legislation being rushed through with the support of both main parties. As normality begins to return, it is time for proper parliamentary politics again.

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