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22 April 2020

Keir Starmer’s first stress-test exposes problems for Dominic Raab – and Starmer

Neither man had convincing answers about their party's record on tackling coronavirus.

By Stephen Bush

Prime Minister’s Questions is valuable for two reasons. Both are laid out well in Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton’s excellent book about the exchanges, Punch and Judy Politics. The first is that they are an important tool of parliamentary management: if you are reliant on your MPs to remain in office, as almost all party leaders are, then you need to do well enough at these sessions to retain their confidence. Tony Blair reckoned that if you had three bad sessions in a row your MPs would be out to get you. David Cameron, who in addition to doing the job as prime minister and leader of the opposition, earlier helped to prepare Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard for the sessions, thought that you could get away with having three, but it was the fourth – the point at which a leader would have gone a month without a win – that would provoke a mutiny. 

When a party is led by a politician like Jeremy Corbyn, who never had a power-base or a mandate among the Parliamentary Labour Party, that aspect matters less. But one way Labour politics would have returned to “normal”, whoever emerged as leader, is that all of the candidates would have been the leader of a definable faction within the parliamentary party. Unlike Corbyn, they would have been dependent on the continuing support of their parliamentary allies and all of them would have been vulnerable to a loss of faith that repeated bad performances would cause.

And for both government and opposition, these sessions are a useful stress test. Where are they vulnerable? Where can they be attacked without having a comeback? What lines of attack against the government or opposition are they unable to make because they would invite a painful response? As well as being a vital way for the sitting prime minister to hold government to account, they are a vital way for both PM and leader of the opposition to identify and hopefully negate their own weaknesses.

For that reason, the average session of Prime Ministers Questions is won or lost outside the chamber. Cameron’s jousts with Ed Miliband were usually pretty even: when you totted up who independent pundits had said had won or lost, or indeed if you totted up what their respective sides privately thought week to week. But when you look at the two men’s high watermarks you see that, yes, they are a testament to their respective teams’ strategic thinking or lack thereof, but they were also, in large part, down to external events.

Let’s take Miliband’s best single question – “In the light of his U-turn on alcohol pricing, can the Prime Minister tell us, is there anything he could organise in a brewery?” – it worked for a lot of reasons. It was genuinely funny, which knocked Cameron off his stride: the laughter came not only from the opposition benches but from behind him, too. It also came during a period in which the government had U-turned not just on alcohol pricing but on a series of issues.

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Or Cameron’s best response, in which he quipped that not a single business leader backed a Labour policy, citing the then shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ failure to remember the full name of a backer, saying “Bill Somebody… Bill Somebody is not a person – bill somebody is Labour’s policy!” The reality is that Miliband’s hopes of winning PMQs that week were dead and buried the moment the words “Bill Somebody” left Balls’ lips – and very little either Cameron or Miliband could have done that week in the Commons chamber would have altered that.

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So what did this stress-test reveal? Well, they showed that the government has no good or clear answers on personal protective equipment or on the condition of England’s care homes. Dominic Raab struggled to answer questions on either issue from Keir Starmer or Ed Davey. But they also exposed a vulnerability on Starmer’s part: that he has no clear rejoinder as far as the decisions being made by the Welsh government – where Labour governs in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – were concerned. The future of British politics may yet hinge on which one of those problems is more important or can be solved faster.