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22 April 2020

What we learned from Keir Starmer’s first (virtual) PMQs

The Labour leader wants the word "slow" to define the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

By Patrick Maguire

Constructive opposition isn’t without bite

“Constructive” has so far been the watchword of Keir Starmer’s leadership – and it was how he opened his first PMQs as leader of the opposition.

That word – intended to advertise what Starmer sees, and wants the public to see, as the principal difference between his leadership and Jeremy Corbyn’s – has been baked into every utterance the new Labour leader has made during the pandemic.

But what does “constructive” opposition look like in practice? Starmer’s gambit at today’s PMQs provided some flesh for the bones of something that has resembled a platitude. 

His critics on the left believe that Starmer’s attempts to code his interventions as constructive make for a rather toothless opposition. His supporters say the only difference between his approach and Corbyn’s is one of tone and emphasis.

Who is right? The Labour leader’s line of questioning did not give First Secretary of State Dominic Raab an easy ride, despite his gestures of civility. He asked, in turn, about the government’s likely failure to reach its target of 100,000 tests a day, the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), and deaths among NHS and care workers.

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Inflected though they were with expressions of understanding for the scale of the task, each question sought – and in most cases secured – an answer that ministers would rather not be public. Starmer’s gamble is that he will, in time, get the credit for exposing the government’s failings without engaging in insensitive politicking.

Ministers face more questions than answers on social care

The most startling revelation Starmer’s questions yielded came when Raab revealed that the government did not know how many social care workers had died from coronavirus (by comparison, he could reveal that 69 NHS workers had died).

Taken together with the continued uncertainty over just how widespread, and lethal, the outbreak is in care homes, it is clear that the government has more questions than answers on the spread of the virus outside of healthcare facilities.

“Slow” is the word Labour wants to stick 

If “constructive” is the word Starmer wants voters to associate with him, then “slow” is the one he wants to tar the government with.

“There is a pattern emerging here,” he said, reaching his peroration, “we were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment, and now slow to take up offers from firms [that offered to manufacture PPE].”

That charge, rather than any one theme, linked Starmer’s six questions. Expect to hear it on the airwaves from the rest of his shadow cabinet in the coming days.

And, indeed, the media heard it from shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves in a press release issued as soon as Starmer sat down, with news that 36 firms that had offered to make PPE for the NHS had not received a reply from the government.

On today’s evidence, Labour’s approach to PMQs will certainly be more clinical and perhaps more coherent: Starmer promised to return with the same questions on deaths in social care the following week.

But that isn’t to say it will inevitably be more effective in real terms. After all, William Hague would often beat Tony Blair.

Virtual proceedings have changed parliament in more ways than one

Partly conducted in person, partly via Zoom, PMQs looked and sounded unfamiliar today – and plenty of MPs might come away thinking it was unfamiliarly effective. 

Save for David Mundell failing to connect and Peter Bone ending up on mute, the technical side passed largely without a hitch. The absence of braying and barracking from the green benches – largely deserted thanks to the imposition of social distancing measures – also made for a calmer, more efficient atmosphere.

It has been said that the pandemic will change things utterly. One of the tests will be whether the government’s appetite for transparency – and parliament’s attitude of calm and constructive scrutiny – will survive.