Keir Starmer’s call for a “circuit break” has many benefits and few downsides for Labour

The Labour leader’s urgent call for a short national lockdown puts him ahead of a decision that appears inevitable.

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Keir Starmer has called for an urgent two-to-three week “circuit break” in England, after it emerged that the government rejected calls from its scientific advisers for a short national lockdown three weeks ago. 

“There’s no longer time to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt,” the Labour leader declared at his first ever live televised press conference, as he put pressure on Boris Johnson to bring in “a temporary set of clear and effective restrictions designed to get the R rate down and reverse the trend of infections and hospital admissions.” 

It ends what might be described as Keir Starmer’s “Gogglebox problem”. Last month, the armchair critics on the Channel 4 programme were shown a clip of the Labour leader on The Andrew Marr Show, and grew increasingly frustrated at his failure to present his own alternative agenda while he criticised the government. One participant shouted at the camera, saying she wanted to know what he would do, while another was genuinely confused: “I thought he was Labour?”

[see also: Do the British public favour a second lockdown?]

Since Starmer took over as leader in the middle of this crisis, his party’s approach has been to take a “constructive” approach to opposition; they believed the public mood demanded it, and that outlining detailed alternatives to every government proposal would be unnecessary, and confusing. As time has gone on, the Labour leader has adopted a more critical approach in PMQs, but the perception that Labour has been sitting on the fence has only grown, much to the annoyance of many within the party, who point out that it has made clear what it would do differently, not least on economic support and on test and trace. 

[see also: Keir Starmer’s quest to reshape Labour]

This intervention sees Starmer seizing the opportunity to get on the front foot and tell the public what he would be doing differently. One of the things that has prevented Labour from making more detailed interventions to date is that it simply hasn’t been privy to the relevant advice or help that would be provided if it had the entire machinery of government behind it. With the publication of the Sage minutes, it has the scientific underpinning. It doesn’t have the economic modelling, but it is learning from the mistakes of the last lockdown: it makes its call for the circuit break backed by the consensus that locking down earlier costs less in the long run. And there’s the other benefit of opposition: it is emphasising the need for economic support to back up these measures, but it is up to the government to work out the finer detail.

There is a feeling of putting off the inevitable in Boris Johnson’s latest tiered coronavirus measures. We don’t know for certain, but it seems fairly likely that these measures alone won’t reverse the trend of increasing cases, even if they slightly dampen the rate, and that, sooner or later, a lockdown of greater or lesser duration will be a choice that Boris Johnson has to take. If, or when, he does, he will be taking the action that the Labour leader has already called for. If he doesn’t, Starmer will have called for decisive action in a manner backed by both Sage and a plurality of the public, while the course of events that follows under Boris Johnson will be held up against a hypothetical world in which he had implemented Starmer's call. 

It is a move with plenty of benefits and very few downsides for the Labour leader.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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