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11 November 2020

Three things we learned from this week’s PMQs

Keir Starmer has a new plan to tackle his economy problem. 

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer knows he has an economy problem and thinks Tory cronyism will help him solve it

Labour has suffered from two problems since it went into opposition. First, a major deficit on leadership compared to the Conservatives – David Cameron enjoyed large leads on this question over both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, and although Corbyn was able to close this gap in 2017 and briefly to overhaul it in early 2018, Theresa May and Boris Johnson generally led him too. Second, and more enduringly, there is a big gap on perceptions of Labour’s economic competence versus the Tories.

Keir Starmer’s approach today was to focus heavily on government mismanagement of public spending, to talk about how the Conservative government is wasting money through dodgy procurement and jobs for the boys. 

Boris Johnson hasn’t yet decided what his attack line on Keir Starmer is

The Prime Minister’s response was to talk about how his party values the private sector, while Keir Starmer’s doesn’t. The Conservatives haven’t yet settled on a consistent way to attack Starmer: is he an opportunist? Secretly radical? No change at all from the party of Corbyn?

Of course, in the chamber, this doesn’t matter, you can “win” PMQs or scrappily draw it every week using a different attack line each time. It only really matters if you don’t have a big argument come election time. William Hague is a good cautionary tale here: he had a great micro-argument against Tony Blair most weeks, but he had no big argument.

[See also: Promising news about Pfizer’s vaccine is a reminder of a forgotten truth about Covid-19]

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Johnson is a long way from being in that position yet, but it still remains far from clear where he believes he should draw the divide between him and Starmer.

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Keir Starmer really doesn’t want to talk about Brexit, ever

One of the reasons why this was an odd PMQs is that the good news about a vaccine means that while the novel coronavirus is still very much with us, the political divides it has created feel less clear.

But because PMQs are partly a Trojan horse for the opposition leader to introduce themselves and to draw dividing lines, the opposition leader is always constrained by events. The government is doing very little outside of the battle against Covid-19, which is one reason why Starmer chose somewhat bitty and esoteric questions.

There is, of course, one other topic: the Internal Market Bill and the progress of the Brexit talks. The election of a new US president worried about the consequences of the UK’s Brexit approach for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, the removal of the bill’s law-breaking clauses in the House of Lords, and a number of critical quotes about Johnson’s approach from Conservative luminaries with impeccable pro-Brexit credentials meant this was a topic that Starmer could have made hay with.

Yet he didn’t. Even if events have set Starmer up well, the Labour leader and his Conservative opponent both believe that when Brexit is the topic, Johnson is the winner: even if the balance of cheers in the House of Commons gives the opposite impression.

[See also: Why Joe Biden’s victory in the US election is good news for Boris Johnson]