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10 February 2021

Keir Starmer uses PMQs to fight back

After a "bruising week" for the Labour leader, he appears to have taken some criticisms on board.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer had what some described as a “bruising week” last week. Jittery Labour MPs and plenty in the commentariat have arrived at the consensus, as Stephen identified in his column, that the new party leader  isn’t up to the job. 

But at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Keir Starmer fought back. “The Prime Minister often complains that we never put forward constructive proposals,” the Labour leader noted, a nod to those in his party who have also said in recent weeks that he is too bland, too cautious, and insufficiently clear about Labour’s alternatives. 

“So here’s two for him,” Starmer said: “support businesses and protect jobs now, by extending furlough, business rate relief and VAT cuts for hospitality; and second, secure our borders with a comprehensive hotel quarantine on arrival. No more delays. Will he do it?” 

It isn’t a change from previous weeks in terms of substance – Labour has called for extensions to the furlough scheme, for example, in the past. But the framing has changed: Starmer has been forced to be more explicit about Labour’s own proposals at every turn, including at PMQs, rather than simply asking “forensic” questions about the Conservative approach. It also made it harder for Johnson to respond, having become used to responding to tricky, precise questions by talking about how Labour doesn’t have its own answers to those questions. 

[see also: Paul Mason on how Keir Starmer is allowing the Tories to get away with failure]

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These clear, immediate policy calls from the Labour leader had a pro-business framing. Starmer moved on to cladding and the evictions ban, but started with concerns about a failure to provide certainty to businesses that need to know whether furlough and business rate relief will be extended. 

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It prompted some back-and-forth between the two leaders about which party really is the party of business. Johnson made jibes about Starmer, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, standing “on a manifesto to destroy capitalism”; Starmer alluded to Johnson’s famous “f*** business” comment years ago; but the Labour leader eventually managed to secure an inadvertently helpful line from the Prime Minister: that Labour has had a “Damascene conversion to the importance of business”. 

It spoke to a recurring theme in PMQs: that Johnson is more comfortable attacking Labour as though it is still led by Corbyn, and by associating the current leader with his predecessor. Are voters likely to believe that Starmer is the same as someone who has, under his leadership, been suspended from the Labour Party? It’s not at all clear they are: the early indications seem to be that Keir Starmer and his team have achieved their early aim of distinguishing Starmer from the previous leadership. 

But by tapping into perceptions of Corbyn’s Labour as anti-business, Boris Johnson is hitting an old bruise. The new Labour leadership is clear that to regain power, concerns need to be addressed about the party’s economic credibility, something that John McDonnell also worked hard on, and this has been the priority of Anneliese Dodds, her shadow treasury team, as well as Ed Miliband and Rachel Reeves. We’ve seen it from the beginning: an effort to be a responsible, constructive and economically savvy opposition, as well as proposing clear alternatives. Plenty of those ideas have failed to gain traction, but the effort has been consistent from the start.

Starmer has absorbed the criticisms of his leadership in recent weeks, and used PMQs to try to address them. He is being clearer than ever about what Labour would do differently, but he isn’t, fundamentally, veering from the strategy the party has had since he took office. There is a divide between MPs and activists who want the opposition to be more critical of the government, and voters who, polls show, want their politicians to get along in a time of emergency. Labour is continuing its efforts to appear more pro-business, and certainly isn’t responding to recent criticisms by going for a more critical tone in its response to the government. 

Helpfully, however, the internal criticisms mean the Labour leader may well have found a more effective approach. Being even more explicit about what Labour would do differently now means that precise criticisms of the government are framed as helpful, let’s-all-pull-together suggestions, rather than “carping from the sidelines”. Meanwhile, MPs and activists are happier watching their leader hammer home how Labour is different to the Conservatives, as part of the party’s bigger project this year of setting out its vision for the UK after 2024.