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What we learned from Keir Starmer’s first PMQs with Boris Johnson

Slow is the word for Labour, while the Tories aren't yet ready to talk austerity.

By Patrick Maguire

Keir Starmer wants to be the man who can do both…

The Labour leader’s priority to date has been to be seen as a man willing to bring the country together at a time of national crisis. That was certainly the tone he struck with his opening remarks: congratulating Boris Johnson publicly on the birth of his son, Wilfred, and emphasising that he had done so privately too. 

Yet there then followed the sharpest questioning of his short time as leader of the opposition. The circumstances certainly demanded it. With the UK having recorded the highest death toll in Europe and the second highest worldwide, “How on earth did it come to this?”

Starmer continued in a similar vein: criticising the government’s apparent massaging of testing figures, the lack of personal protective equipment, the proposed cut in the rate of furlough pay, and the death rate in care homes. Each time the Prime Minister quibbled with the basis of the questions – yet Starmer made it clear he was using Downing Street’s own data as a yardstick. 

The criticisms were also peppered with expressions of solidarity. Starmer spoke of his desire to build a “national consensus” and, again, praised the government for what, in his view, it had got right. Even as his negative commentary gets more trenchant, he is refusing to abandon his constructive gambit.

…but his overarching attack line is becoming ever clearer.

As was the case last week, “slow” was the golden thread that linked each of Starmer’s discrete criticisms of the government response. That, it is increasingly clear, is the case Labour is building against the government for the inevitable inquisition once this phase of the crisis abates.

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The Conservatives aren’t ready to discuss cuts just yet.

In response to a question from Labour’s Mike Amesbury about local government financing, Johnson insisted that he had no intention of uttering the “A-word” – austerity. As discussion within the Conservative Party turns to the growing bill for government interventions during the crisis, not least the furlough scheme, so too is there growing trepidation among local authorities that fiscal retrenchment will follow. 

Any cuts to public spending would not only fly in the face of the argument that Johnson has sought to prosecute since entering Downing Street, but of his promise to “level up” infrastructure in parts of the country that are likely to be hit hardest by the economic hardship inflicted by the pandemic. 

Some on the government benches think some degree of austerity is inevitable. If that is the case, the Prime Minister is clearly not ready to admit it.