Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, Doesn't Want to Oppose the Government Too Much

In his first PMQs with Boris Johnson, he spent a lot of time letting the Prime Minister off the hook.
Simon Childs
London, United Kingdom
May 6, 2020, 2:56pm
keir-starmer-boris-johnson-pmq-may
Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson at PMQs on Wednesday. Image via parliamentlive.tv

Keir Starmer, Labour's new leader, is opposed to being in "opposition for opposition's sake". Don't let the title "Leader of the Opposition" fool you – he doesn't want to make a big show of being against things, because that's not what opposition is about.

It's an interesting time to test this theory, and makes you wonder if there comes a point when opposing something "for opposition's sake" would actually be a good idea. Say, if the government presided over a response to the coronavirus that has seen us become European champions in the avoidable deaths league – would it be worth opposing that, just for the flaming hell of it?

This "opposition for opposition's sake" line is Starmer's version of a pledge that every new leader of a political party makes: to be a grown-up politician, unlike the rest of them. Jeremy Corbyn had his "kinder, gentler politics". David Cameron pledged to end "Punch and Judy politics", and went on to tell a female MP to "calm down, dear". These pledges usually last for about as long as it takes to get to the dispatch box, when normal, tub-thumping, low-blowing service is resumed. PMQs is a piece of political theatre, and saying you want to make it less of a panto is itself usually spin aimed at people who are jaded with politics.

I Miss Worrying About Nothing

But it seems that ex-lawyer Keir Starmer may actually believe in turning PMQs into something more sober. Today was his first run-in with Boris Johnson – as the PM has been away recovering from his run-in with herd immunity – and it was every bit the lawyerly cross-examination you'd expect. Even the deafening silence of the socially-distanced Commons chamber gave the feel of a hushed court room, rather than the farmyard of public school moo-ing we're used to.

Maybe it'll work. By inflecting every address with moral outrage against the evil Tories, Jeremy Corbyn played to his base – but was it a turn-off for everyone else? Instead, by addressing the opposition with a bit more dynamic range, might you actually be heard when you ask that cutting question?

Today, when that drop came, it wasn't exactly the euphoric release we'd been waiting for. Starmer had managed to make Dominic Raab look pretty silly while he was standing in for Boris (possibly no great feat?), but at some points this afternoon there almost seemed to be a sense of deference to the Prime Minister, like it would have been rude to make him look too bad.

The Labour leader did use props effectively: at one point, referencing the fact that Britain now has the worst death toll in Europe, Starmer asked, "How on earth did it come to this?" Johnson said you couldn't reliably use the data to make such comparisons, and Starmer held up international comparison graphs that the government has been using in its own press conferences for weeks. The Prime Minister disputed Starmer's figures on the number of deaths in care homes, and Starmer held up a graph on the matter used by the government at its own press conference last night – but then he let Johnson off the hook and moved on: "We will wait to see what the next slides bring."

He also got the Prime Minister to admit that contact tracing was abandoned in mid-March because there wasn't enough capacity (as opposed to one previous government line that it wasn't worthwhile), but followed up by simply wishing the government well with its useless and invasive contact tracing app trial on the Isle of Wight. This is supposed to be Starmer's strong suit; his supporters have been salivating at the prospect of him eviscerating the clownish Boris.

Whatever his performance, you can't ignore the actual politics of what was said. On the day that Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to cut support for furloughed workers, claiming the nation has become "addicted" to state support – a wildly inappropriate analogy – Starmer's final question was about the government's timetable for making people go back to work. The government is desperate to get back to business as usual, despite concerns about the pandemic, so it's good to know the opposition is here to make sure they do it on time.

It was almost surprising to see Starmer ask anything difficult at all, given that much of Labour’s recent messaging has made it seem as though the disastrous government failure we’re witnessing is a party he wants to get in on, rather than a deadly calamity that needs to be stopped.

On the 30th of April, as the UK's death toll became the third highest in the world, he released a video saying Labour had been "pushing hard" for the government to have an exit-strategy plan, and the fact that they were going to have one soon was "a step in the right direction". On the 5th of May, before it was announced that Britain has the highest death toll in Europe, he put out a video in which he said he would "work constructively with the government" on Labour's proposals "to ensure we get the best possible response to this crisis".

Apparently this is what serious, grown-up opposition looks like: pushing the government to do things they would be doing anyway, and building a "national consensus" around the government's strategy that has so far given us many thousands of avoidable deaths. Maybe the sense of being responsible will appeal to some people and therefore "work" politically, but it already feels like non-opposition for non-opposition's sake.

@SimonChilds13