Keir Starmer has grappled with how much humour to attempt in his PMQs performances in recent weeks. Too little and his shadow cabinet call him boring; too much and it’s impossible to discern a coherent political argument from the Star Wars and Love Island gags. At today’s PMQs (22 June), Starmer used jibes to make points about politics, not pop culture. Buoyant and comfortable mocking Boris Johnson, the Labour leader has found a better balance.
Sadly for Starmer, his audience was slightly diminished today with the green benches of the chamber dotted with gaps. Perhaps MPs were kept away from Westminster by the railway strikes or had gone to Devon or West Yorkshire in a last-ditch attempt to canvass voters before tomorrow’s by-elections.
The railway strikes may have come too late to impact the results, but they are likely to be a key battleground for Starmer and Johnson. Giddy with the fact that some Labour frontbenchers joined the pickets yesterday, Johnson doubled down on the argument that Labour was responsible for the strikes – a bold tactic from the party in government.
Starmer hit back with the gumption that the Prime Minister kept daring him to exhibit. The strikes will throw the government’s choices on public sector pay into sharp relief and the Labour leader sought to capitalise on that. He targeted the Tories’ donor ball held at the V&A museum in London this week and mocked its extravagance. Painting the Tories as the party of the rich, when the government is confirming that public sector workers will be handed a real-terms pay cut, could prove profitable for the opposition.
Next, picking up on reports that the government is looking to lift the caps on bankers’ bonuses, Starmer accused Johnson of choosing “pay rises for city bankers and pay cuts for district nurses… Rather than help working people, he’s rolled over on bankers’ bonuses, hasn’t he?” He almost forgot that he needed to slip in a question at the end. Johnson, subdued, quickly gave his answer and sat down shaking his head.
The railway strikes represent the government’s latest attempt to create political dividing lines. Starmer’s retort – framing the Tories as responsible for the strikes while siding with the rich – may resonate during a cost-of-living crisis. “Can’t he hear the country screaming at him: get on with your job,” Starmer proclaimed. The battle lines for this summer’s strikes are swiftly being drawn.