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PMQs: Is Keir Starmer wise or weak?

The Labour leader is rarely ever judged to have skewered Boris Johnson, in part because he rarely tries.

By Harry Lambert

Is Keir Starmer good at Prime Minister’s Questions? Does it matter? “How, with an open goal, is he this awful?” one ideologically unaligned journalist said to me this afternoon as we watched Starmer all but avoid mentioning the vote of confidence in Boris Johnson on Monday night, and instead focus on the NHS. One sketch-writer, no friend of the Labour left, described Starmer’s performance as “sub-Corbyn”.

The Labour leader often frustrates the lobby at PMQs by ignoring what is in front of him. On Monday more Tory MPs voted against Johnson (proportionally) than voted against John Major, Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher in past Conservative leadership challenges and confidence votes. Thatcher announced her resignation within 48 hours after two in five of her MPs voted against her. Today, nearly 48 hours after two in five of Johnson’s MPs voted against him, Johnson looked to move on as if nothing happened. And Starmer was largely happy to act as if nothing had.

Starmer’s strategy, as it has been for much of 2022, is to broaden his attacks from Johnson to the Tory party as a whole. Labour is concerned that Johnson’s removal will allow the Tories to draw a line under more than a decade of failures by successive Conservative governments. Labour strategists want to pin various failings – ie over waiting times in the NHS, or a failure to recruit waves of GPs and build new hospitals as promised, to take today’s topic – on the Tories at large. Focusing on Johnson’s peril, they think, narrows the focus unwisely.

There is a rationale here, but it has its pitfalls. For one, it leads many journalists to think Starmer’s questions are esoteric and weak, and thus to see Starmer himself as weak. That impression builds over time, and shapes how they and others write about him. Any given PMQs is, in itself, an inconsequential event, but collectively they shape how the lobby sees the leaders they peer down on every week. Starmer is rarely ever judged to have skewered Johnson, in part because he rarely tries.

Instead Ian Blackford, who has now led the SNP in Westminster for five years, is often left to make the points that many expect from Starmer. “Week after week I’ve been met with a wall of noise from the Tory benches,” thundered Blackford this afternoon, reflecting on the many occasions he has called for Johnson to go, “but all this time it turns out that 41 per cent of them have been cheering me on!”

“We now have a lame duck prime minister presiding over a divided party in a disunited kingdom,” Blackford said, summarising events in a way Starmer avoided. Johnson, he said, was “acting like Monty Python’s Black Knight, running around declaring ‘It’s just a flesh wound!’” He bellowed: “This story won’t go away until he [Johnson] goes away.”

I quote those lines because they are the ones that reverberated in the chamber. Starmer’s questions largely failed to quieten the Tory benches or hold the House’s attention (until he told one harrowing story of NHS failure that silenced the chamber, if only for a moment). That is the risk of Starmer’s decision to take the more oblique path each week.

[See also: “Keir Starmer is too interested in not being Jeremy Corbyn”]

Hear from the UK’s leading politicians on the most pressing policy questions facing the UK at NS Politics Live, in London. Speakers include Sir Keir Starmer, Ben Wallace, Lisa Nandy, Sajid Javid, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Jeremy Hunt, Layla Moran and Andrew Marr. Find out more about the New Statesman’s flagship event on the 28 June here.

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