Starmer has made PMQs matter again, but his key tests are likely to be elsewhere

By Gareth Jones, Newgate Public Affairs

Keir Starmer has now been Labour leader for little over six weeks in what has been, by any standards, tumultuous circumstances. The consensus so far is that he has made a promising start. His serious and calm demeanour and ‘constructive opposition’ in the midst of a national crisis in won plaudits, he has won favourable media coverage in the unlikeliest of places and his approval ratings are already higher than any Labour leader in a decade. His biggest achievement so far, however, has been the revival of the Official Opposition as effective scrutiniser of government, which has arguably come at the time when it was most needed.

This has been most evident at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Most of the British public don’t follow PMQs, but they are important in that they affect the mood of Parliament, galvanise the backbenchers and help set the media agenda. Over the last five years, Conservative Prime Ministers have faced an Opposition leader in Jeremy Corbyn who would angrily accuse the government of being immoral, but rarely provided any detailed critique of government policy or was able to win any concessions through scrutiny. PMQs became a non-event.

Things have quickly changed. Starmer has managed to apply his barrister cross-examination skills to highlight key areas of the government’s handling of the pandemic – whether this be on the official advice and policy on care homes, number of unexplained deaths, availability of PPE and the initial abandonment of track and tracing – which in many cases has put the government on the back foot. So far, Starmer’s approach has been to judge the government by its own standards – instead of trying to demonstrate that it is immoral, he is trying to demonstrate that it is incompetent.

This has clearly made Boris Johnson’s Wednesday lunchtimes far more uncomfortable than he was previously used to. After last week’s encounter focusing on government policy on care homes, the Daily Telegraph concluded that “Keir Starmer took Boris Johnson apart like a Duplo train set” and forced the Prime Minister into “a cascade of helpless waffle”. This week’s showdown was a more even-handed affair, with Johnson pushing back more aggressively on Starmer’s criticisms. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister was still visibly put under pressure and this afternoon was forced into a U-turn on the issue of the surcharge placed on NHS and care workers from overseas. 

All this has been encouraging for Labour supporters, though it must be said that these improvements have come from a very low base. The Party is still recovering from its worst election defeat since 1935 and has a mountain to climb if it is to effectively challenge the government at the next election. Indeed, the government’s popularity has actually increased in the past few months, particularly in the early stages of the outbreak. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to assume that things will be plain sailing for the Conservatives in the coming years. Questions and criticism over the government’s handling of the pandemic are unlikely to go away, the country is bracing itself for one of the worst recessions in recorded history, worsening government finances will necessitate tough decisions on tax rises and/or spending and unemployment could return as a prevalent political issue.

The key question (from a party political perspective) will be whether Labour can capitalise on these difficulties. For that to happen, Starmer will need to ensure that he can do more than just scrutinise the government, but to present the Opposition as an attractive alternative government in waiting. For that, he will need to improve perceptions of the Party itself and remove some of toxicity and factionalism that has been evident over the past five years (an early internal battle for Starmer will be getting his preferred candidate, David Evans, elected as General Secretary). More importantly, he will need to offer a compelling vision that unites various parts of the centre-left coalition, including urban voters and those in the traditional Labour heartlands. An interesting and noticeable early indicator of his intentions came last week when he rejected calls for the Brexit transition period to be extended, saying he would rather “the negotiations were completed as quickly as possible” – suggesting he did not want his leadership to be defined by ongoing arguments about Brexit. 

These challenges will likely require a different set of skills than he has displayed so far. He will need to mobilise his supporters and appear engaging among a broad group of voters. Starmer has already proved that he can put the government under pressure in a set piece debate, but the key tests for him and his leadership are unlikely to come at the dispatch box

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