Why Keir Starmer is right to push for a debate on the government’s lockdown exit strategy

The danger of discussing crucial Covid-19 issues behind closed doors has already been demonstrated. 

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Why does Keir Starmer keep banging on about an exit strategy? The Labour leader’s first demand of the government, after he formed his own shadow cabinet Covid-19 committee was that it publish a plan for how to exit the lockdown. Now he’s written a letter to locum prime minister Dominic Raab asking again, that ministers publish a lockdown strategy so that it can be scrutinised and debated in public. 

His intervention is being criticised from both sides. Some are asking why he’s muddying the waters when the important thing is landing the stay home message. Others are wondering why he isn’t focusing on the lack of protective equipment for health workers, or the dire state of British care homes, or the UK’s death rate, which looks at present to be on course to be one of the worst in Europe. 

From a policy perspective, as I blogged yesterday, I think the question  ministers should be asking is not when and how the lockdown will end, but how the economy and society can function better in lockdown than at present. But for good or for ill, the debate in government is about when and how – so Starmer is right to say that the debate should be held out in the open.

We’ve already had the results of one debate about Covid-19 behind closed doors: the devolved and national governments pursued a strategy that was at odds with the majority of countries elsewhere, with major gatherings in England and Wales going ahead, accompanied by assurances from the government’s advisers that it was all perfectly safe: before an abrupt U-turn that brought the UK into line with the consensus.

The British and devolved governments were far from the only governments pursuing an alternative strategy – but the clear lesson from the failure of Plan A, and indeed the failures of so many governments in the past, is that there’s a benefit to having a debate which everyone can see. 

Yet there’s a political argument to Starmer’s approach too: the question that will dominate politics for the next decade is not going to be about the efforts to fight the novel coronavirus, or the battles over if, how or why the government could have pursued a better approach to fighting the disease. It will be about how to respond to the economic challenges created by the global lockdown. 

Starmer’s exit strategy letter is based on taking the political hit up front – being criticised on all sides for banging on about exit strategy today – so that he can benefit later: either because an exit strategy cooked up behind closed-doors fails to function or, more likely, because when the debate moves to the question of paying for all this, no-one will be able to say that he wanted to rack up an even bigger bill than the Tories. 

Will it work? The lesson from Starmer’s short and meteoric rise thus far is that he has a good instinct for anticipating where the political debate will move, and shifting so that the fight takes place on his preferred battleground. We saw that plainly enough in Labour's Brexit wars, a battle in which he was, at one time or another heavily criticised by Remainers and Leavers alike. But when the dust settled, it was Starmer’s Brexit strategy that won out: and Starmer who became Labour leader.

But the known unknown from the party’s Brexit wars remains whether his ability to predict and prepare for the changing political battleground is matched by an instinct for picking a fight that Labour can win. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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