Boris Johnson v Keir Starmer: Who won the battle of PMQs?

In the six weeks he has been away from the Commons chamber, Boris Johnson nearly died. He also missed Sir Keir Starmer’s first outing at PMQs as Labour leader last week for the small matter of the birth of his first child with partner Carrie Symonds. Fair play to him, Johnson is having quite the year.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London.Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London.

You might have expected a slightly easier ride for the Prime Minister. But Johnson was also returning to the news that according to official statistics, the UK has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, and the second highest in the world.

So there was no joking and no banter as the Prime Minister was subjected to the toughest cross-examination on his government’s coronavirus record since the outbreak began - by a former Director of Public Prosecutions.

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The unfamiliar silence of the Commons helped transform the chamber into a courtroom, with the dispatch box as the dock. More than once, Johnson looked around for the familiar support of noisy backbenchers - but there were none.

He spent a week in isolation and another in hospital, but the Prime Minister can’t have felt much more alone.

Starmer was emotionless in his role as prosecutor, even when quoting the appalling figures.

“That is not success, or apparent success, so can the Prime Minister tell us: how on earth did it come to this?”

The Labour leader’s restraint made it harder for Johnson to mount a defence, and like a nervous witness, again and again he let slip more than he meant to.

“Of course there will be a time to look at what decisions we took and whether we could have taken different decisions,” the Prime Minister said, in an answer that will surely be quoted back to him the next time he is asked to back a public inquiry.

Johnson conceded that the “crisis in care homes” was “something I bitterly regret” - clips that Downing Street won’t enjoy seeing on the Ten O’Clock News.

Challenging the Prime Minister on testing, Starmer allowed himself a little flourish, asking naively: “What does the Prime Minister think was so special about 30 April that meant that testing that day was so high?” It was, of course, the deadline for the government’s 100,000-a-day target, which it has since only met for a combined 48 hours.

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Johnson couldn’t help himself, offering up that “the ambition, clearly, is to get up to 200,000 a day by the end of this month, and then to go even higher.”

Downing Street later had to clarify that this was a target for testing capacity - but anyway, the prosecutor wasn’t impressed. “Just having a target is not a strategy,” Starmer replied. “What is needed is testing, tracing and isolation—that is the strategy.” Labour supporters dreaming for five years of a leader who looked Prime Ministerial at the despatch box will have punched the air.

Starmer also extracted the first official confirmation that lockdown is set to be eased from next week, forcing Johnson to commit to a government statement after his speech to the nation on Sunday. Justifying his decision not to present what he called the ‘unlockdown plan’ to MPs first, the Prime Minister revealed: “We will want, if we possibly can, to get going with some of these measures on Monday”. His big announcement spoiled, Johnson also had to accept another scolding from the judge, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.

After his first PMQs, when the Labour leader stressed his desire to be constructive, questions were asked about whether Starmer was capable of hurting the government.

Facing Johnson, he did it without breaking a sweat.

If this is how tough it gets when the outbreak is just past its peak and party politics is still on hold, Johnson won’t look forward to standing in the dock when his government’s actions are really on trial.

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Joy Yates

Editorial Director