By Gareth Jones
For those who regularly watch it, today’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) today followed a familiar pattern. Labour leader Keir Starmer highlighted some severe policy failures from the government on its handling of Covid, as well as on the issue of free school meals – to which the Prime Minister responded, in less than clear or convincing fashion, before making his own jibes about the Labour leader’s own contradictory positions. In the end, Johnson seemed to survive Starmer’s attacks quite easily, in an exchange that did little to attract anyone’s attention, let alone change anyone’s minds.
The fact that a debate between the Prime Minister and the Labour leader on such serious issues felt so unremarkable highlights the current slightly curious nature of party politics during the pandemic. The most severe attack made by Starmer – that Boris Johnson ignored its own scientists’ warnings about the need for tougher restrictions as early as 18 December and did not impose lockdown until two weeks later, resulting in thousands of needless deaths — would be considered highly damning by some. Yet it was largely shrugged off by the Prime Minister, who noted that the lockdown measures now seem to be working. When it came to the issue of free school meals and the controversy surrounding the inadequate food parcels provided to poor families, the Prime Minister replied by thanking Marcus Rashford for highlighting the problem and then claimed that Rashford is doing a better job at holding him to account than Starmer.
The dynamic between the two leaders has evolved in the past 10 months. In their initial exchanges, last April, the Prime Minister looked visibly shaken by his inability to respond to Starmer’s focused line of questioning. This discomfort at PMQs was accompanied by a steady revival of Labour’s polling numbers, as the party recovered a 20-point gap that had existed at the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as party leader, with Starmer largely seen as restoring the party’s credibility as well as capitalising on the government’s perceived mishandling of the pandemic. In the past few months, however, polling numbers have remained fairly static between the two main parties – and despite the government’s many difficulties, there is also a perception that Keir Starmer is struggling to make an impact beyond providing a critique of the Prime Minister’s handling of Covid. This perhaps explains why the Prime Minister is seemingly less fazed by his questioning in recent months.
The Conservative Party have sought to label Starmer “Captain Hindsight” in an attempt to blunt his attacks and characterise his limitations. On the face of it, the accusation of hindsight doesn’t seem quite fair – Starmer has already, on several occasions, called for measures on Covid weeks before they have eventually been adopted by the government. Yet the label clearly has a degree of resonance among the general public. Recent focus groups have highlighted a general distaste for politicians criticising and politicising every aspect of government policy on Covid (as evidenced by a recent focus group exercise by Times Radio). Covid dominates public life like nothing else, yet not everyone views it as a political issue – they see it as more of a day-to-day challenge. A notable recent poll by YouGov shows that the majority of people think that rule-breaking by the general public is more responsible for the rise in coronavirus cases over the last month, rather than government policy – by a wide margin. Given that sentiment, there is surely a limit to how much an opposition party can capitalise on perceived government policy failures.
Outside of the issue of Covid, some of Starmer’s recent interventions have struggled to attract a significant amount of attention. A policy speech he gave on Monday, followed by a speech today from his Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, have barely been noticed in the media. Some of this is understandable — there is a limit to how much people want to hear from the Labour Party right now, at the height of the crisis. However, in the future, the Labour leader knows he will need to do more to capture people’s imagination and win over voters before the next election.