Political leaders write to one another for two reasons: to communicate and to wound. A good way of telling the difference between the two is whether or not the leader in question receives the letter before, after or at the same time as the media.
Boris Johnson’s invitation to opposition leaders to attend a briefing on Covid-19 with the chief medical officer is a good case in point – it’s not the first time during the crisis that opposition leaders have been invited to, or indeed have attended, a briefing on the government’s coronavirus response, but it is the first time that the invitation has been made in public and before one of the invitees (Labour’s new leader Keir Starmer) is officially in place.
Jeremy Corbyn, Ian Blackford, Ed Davey, and their respective health spokespeople have already attended briefings by medical experts on the government’s strategy. In Wales, where the Labour Party governs in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the opposition parties, including the Welsh Conservatives now attend weekly Covid-19 cabinet briefings.
Johnson is aiming to wound, not to communicate – or, perhaps more accurately, he is aiming, and has succeeded, at defusing a potential line of attack from Labour’s incoming leader. Johnson can’t now be outflanked by Starmer using his victory speech to invite himself to these briefings, which would have continued to happen anyway. He can’t now be accused of being well behind the Welsh government.
But in reality, the big difference between Starmer’s relationship with the government over Covid-19 and Corbyn’s is that both sides regard it as in their interests to be more outspoken about it – but the substance remains unchanged, at least for now.