What we learned from this week's PMQs

Boris Johnson quietly U-turns on shielding MPs being allowed to vote by proxy.

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Keir Starmer is changing approach

The Labour leadership has made much in the past few weeks of being a constructive opposition in this time of crisis. But as public confidence in the government's approach wanes, Keir Starmer has maintained his measured tone but gone firmly on the attack: on Johnson's leadership, on test and trace, the government's transparency and use of statistics in the Covid-19 response, and that very drop in trust. In response, the Prime Minister struggled to prosecute an argument of his own across the exchange with the leader of opposition.

Appearing rattled from early on in the questions, Johnson's only line of defence was criticising Starmer's tone and approach. "I do not see the purpose of his endless attacks," he noted, later characterising Starmer's approach as "agree, U-turn, criticise". This was clearly the moment that Downing Street hopes will be clipped for news reports of PMQs. But where he should be making a positive case in favour of the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, that line of defence avoids the question altogether.  

Starmer wrote to Johnson about schools reopening. The PM hasn't replied

The Labour front bench was relatively quiet on the controversial question of schools reopening, preferring to apply pressure on the issue of care homes, while teaching unions pushed hard against the plans. We now have some idea as to what was going on behind the scenes. Starmer revealed, in response to Johnson's criticism that the Labour leader was not working constructively, that he wrote to the Prime Minister "privately and confidentially" two weeks ago to build a consensus on schools reopening, but Johnson did not reply. The PM retorted that they had a phone conversation on the matter, but Starmer said he will be putting the letter into the public domain. Expect that to be released shortly, as yet another example of the new Labour front bench following up events at PMQs with press releases, announcements and documentation to further their case beyond the chamber. 

MPs who are shielding will be able to vote by proxy 

This PMQs saw the Prime Minister quietly U-turn on one of the most concerning aspects of the government's policy on the return of MPs to parliament yesterday, during which MPs spent hours queuing to vote physically, while sheilding MPs were unable to vote. The Prime Minister spoke of how "ordinary people" are experiencing long queues and MPs should be no different, but conceded the main point on what Starmer described as "shameful" indirect discrimination against MPs who are shielding: the MPs who were disenfranchised yesterday by the new system will now, in fact, be allowed to vote by proxy. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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