What we learned from this week's PMQs

Ministers are drawing a new dividing line with Labour – but don't expect them to talk about an exit strategy yet.

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The government has a new language for exit strategies...

It has been a while since Keir Starmer and Dominic Raab clashed over a transition period at the despatch box. Today they did just that – but Brexit was not on the agenda.

In response to the Labour leader’s first question – on the rising death toll – the First Secretary of State, standing in once more for Boris Johnson, deployed a revealing turn of phrase.

It was too early, he said, to talk of a “transitional period” out of social distancing. That is language we have not heard from a minister before. Politicians on both sides have hitherto preferred to speak of “exit strategies”.

What does the form of words tell us? In short: something we already know. The government is not planning for an immediate return to the old normal. It is now speaking in such a way as to acknowledge that truth.

... but don't expect it to say when

Though Raab’s language inadvertently revealed how the government might eventually communicate the gradual easing of restrictions to the public, he would not be drawn on Starmer’s final question – what would that transitional period look like?

That the government is still stonewalling on that question and deferring to its scientific advisory committee Sage – even when, as was the case today, there is no demand for dates – raises more questions than answers. As Starmer pointed out, other countries have set out their own strategies and are moving towards a tentative easing. The same is true in Scotland and Wales.

In response, Raab insisted that international comparisons held no water – at least not yet. The same, he insisted, was true of comparing death tolls. Yet the public will inevitably look abroad, not least as long as the government publishes an international comparison at the daily press conference and does not recant suggesting a target of 20,000 deaths.

But, as Raab said, there is also a risk in making international comparisons for setting out an exit pathway – with Germany looking to tighten social distancing measures once more, Starmer’s line could appear premature. In that respect, ministers look to be hedging their bets before admitting to what looks like a manifest failure.

Keir Starmer's new approach is reaping small dividends...

Last week Starmer promised Raab that he would reprise one of his six questions: how many social care workers had died after contracting Covid-19?

Then, the First Secretary of State did not have the information to hand – despite the outbreak in care homes having shot up the political agenda. It took Health Secretary Matt Hancock a matter of minutes to correct the record when he made a statement of his own, but the damage had been done.

Raab made no such mistake this week, pre-empting Starmer by giving the figures before he was asked. The leader of the opposition went on to ask him again, much to Raab’s annoyance.

Though the government is no more willing to talk about its exit strategy than when Starmer got on to that hobby horse, it has been more forthcoming with the figures that put its response to the crisis in a very unflattering light indeed.

... but ministers are drawing a new dividing line with Labour

Each of Starmer’s questions is swaddled in tributes to the government for what it has got right – such is the logic of his constructive gambit. There is next to nothing ministers could reasonably criticise about his tone, carefully pitched as it is.

But Raab thinks he has found a rejoinder that will work: that Starmer believes he “knows better than the scientists”. Both that and how heavily Raab emphasised the role of scientific advice in determining when the government would move suggests it is trying to draw a new dividing line with the opposition – of politicking versus expertise.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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