Keir Starmer is reaping the rewards of an effective PMQs performance

The Prime Minister has decided to drop the controversial health surcharge for NHS and care workers following pressure applied by the Labour leader

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Boris Johnson has changed his mind on asking NHS and care workers from overseas to pay a £600 surcharge on using the NHS, after defending the policy yesterday.

The controversial immigration health surcharge was due to rise from £400 to £624 under the government’s immigration bill, but the inclusion of health workers in the policy has met with sharp criticism from the Labour leader and other opposition parties. 

It is the proof - if proof was required - that Keir Starmer has been using PMQs effectively. There was much talk yesterday of who had “won” the contest in terms of the relative demeanors of each leader: Johnson increasingly rattled, Starmer remaining calm and, famously, “forensic” in his approach. This matters, but what matters more is the way Starmer used the platform of PMQs - the biggest chance he has in a given week to communicate with the public - to put Johnson on the spot over the policy. 

In a clip that was widely shared on social media, Johnson’s attempted defence of the surcharge made it immediately clear how tricky it is for the PM to justify it at a time when public support is firmly behind those from overseas who are working in our healthcare system: particularly so, because he acknowledged that NHS doctors and nurses from overseas had “frankly saved my life”, before jarringly interrupting himself to justify the need for the charge as a way of accruing £900 million for the NHS per year.

It is arguably the case that very little was required from Starmer to expose the Prime Minister’s personal inability to reconcile the charge with his recent personal experiences. But the Labour leader also used PMQs as an opportunity to announce that Labour would be tabling an amendment to the Immigration Bill to waive the fee on health workers. Soon afterwards a petition was launched. And this morning, rumours of a Tory rebellion on the issue began to bubble. 

It could be that this surcharge was so politically toxic in the current climate that the reversal would have occurred without much sleight of hand from the Labour front bench.

But, by applying the right pressure at the right time, this has become an unequivocal victory for Starmer, as well as for those on the frontline of the Covid-19 response from overseas who may feel more valued with this change of heart from the Prime Minister. As Stephen writes in this week’s column, the Labour leader picks battles he knows he can win. This proves it.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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