Keir Starmer’s forensic attention to detail, a product of his experience as Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, has thus far consistently trumped Johnson’s bluster and rhetoric at the dispatch box. Johnson’s performance at this Wednesday’s PMQs was perhaps his worst yet. His unwillingness to engage with criticism seemed ever more desperate; his substance was almost Trump-esque in its lack of foundation, and his attempt at humour amused only his party’s most sycophantic elements.
A clear narrative has emerged from the first seven sessions between the PM and the new Labour leader. Johnson has tried to force Starmer into a false dichotomy. In Johnson’s mind, Labour must either completely back him and all his policies or oppose him. There is no in-between.
This week, Starmer questioned the government’s lack of support for the aviation industry responding to an announcement from British Airways that 12,000 workers were being fired and 30,000 others were being rehired on worse working conditions. Johnson hit back: “Last week, the shadow chancellor supported our programme. This week, he says he opposes it. Which is it?” In a clash over free parking for NHS staff the preceeding week, in which Johnson refused to confirm whether the government would continue to provide the free parking offered during pandemic, Johnson similarly taunted: “One week he (Starmer) is backing us, the next week he is not.”
Johnson refuses to accept that it is consistent for Starmer to criticise particular government policies, whilst supporting others and even Johnson’s general pandemic strategy. In fact, a delicate balance of support and scrutiny is necessary, now more than ever, from the opposition. Starmer must seek to avoid undermining the government and further destabilising the country but must also scrutinise government policy and hold it to account for its actions.
Johnson has sought to equate maintaining the confidence of the country with blindly supporting government policy. Criticism of government policy is deemed dangerous, because it undermines the public’s trust in the instructions given by the government, which is necessary to revive economic activity. If the public does not trust the government, then relaxing regulations, i.e. re-opening businesses, schools and public facilities etc, will not have the desired effect because the public will not act on their restored freedoms. They will stay at home afraid, further perpetuating the recession.
Starmer’s position is weakened because he began his tenure as Labour leader seeking to avoid politicising COVID-19. He wanted to be a constructive force supporting the government, crucially avoiding being seen as playing politics with the pandemic. This was the right decision at the time. Effectively enforcing the lockdown to limit the consequences of the pandemic required popular support. Criticising the government at such a crucial juncture could have cost lives.
However, the effects of COVID-19 now reverberate through every policy decision. Decisions that seem entirely unrelated to the pandemic, like proposed changes to the capital gains tax, must be placed in the context of the economic crisis caused by the virus. Politicians should be able to distinguish between the criticism of individual policies, and criticism that undermines faith in the government itself.
An opposition which properly does its job, scrutinising policy and holding the government to account, should actually increase trust in the government despite the rhetoric of the PM. The public need an opposition which can question and expose the government when it attempts to impose legislation against the interests of the public.
Starmer was correct in initially refusing to criticise Johnson; treating him like a war-time Prime Minister in a time of lockdown where national unity was paramount. But the ‘war’, at least for now, is largely over and now an effective opposition is needed for the UK to best manage the consequences of coronavirus.
Johnson’s rhetoric, prone to Trump-like exaggerations which play fast and loose with the truth, is far more likely to undermine public trust and confidence in the government than Starmer’s criticism. The public do not expect the Prime Minister to have all the answers, and for every policy implemented to be the correct choice with the benefit of hindsight. COVID-19 is a novel virus, and hence the science which informs government decision-making is constantly changing. Mistakes are inevitable given the evolution of our understanding of virus. However, the public do expect the Prime Minister to be honest.
Johnson’s suggestion this Wednesday that the UK’s test and trace system “is as good as or better than any other system anywhere in the world” is as large a fantasy as Trump’s previous claims that the US has more testing than any other country. The percentage of contacts reached by government’s test and trace system has instead been consistently falling. The system currently only reaches 25% of individuals infected by the virus, and of the 25% who the government is able to track, the percentage of contacts tracked has fallen from over 90% to just over 70. Figures that pale in comparison to the success of systems in South Korea and Taiwan.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. The PM previously told parliament that Leicester authorities received information about a local spike in cases by June 18th, despite Starmer claiming that the Mayor of Leicester had personally told that him that he received it a week later on the 25th. This oversight resulted in a crucial lost week where the virus could have been better contained. Johnson took inspiration from South Park labelling Keir Starmer as “Captain Hindsight” claiming that nobody knew about asymptomatic transmissions when the virus first hit the UK. Minutes from SAGE as early as January highlighted evidence of asymptomatic transmission in China and Italy before the virus was prominent in the UK.
The most damning moment of the recent PMQs was when Starmer questioned Johnson on a newly published report forecasting the potential consequences of a second wave of the virus commissioned by the government. Starmer asked the PM whether he had actually read the report. Johnson sheepishly responded, “Of course I’m aware of the report.” Now, I’m aware of my pre-reading for next term, but I most definitely haven’t read it.
Throughout the election campaign, Johnson was able to successfully avoid serious scrutiny. He dodged a face to face interview with Andrew Neil, unlike all other party leaders, and sought to minimise live interviews. However, he cannot escape Starmer and cannot keep using COVID-19 as a pretence to avoid scrutiny over his policy decisions. A fear of scrutiny only conveys weakness in a time where confidence in government is crucial. Especially now, the public needs and wants a PM who can defend the decisions he makes. What they do not need is a leader who demands unquestioning support to create an illusion of a perfect government.