PMQs sketch: A few tests, but Starmer isn’t fully operational

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's QuestionsLabour Party leader Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Questions
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Questions
The day began with one front page headline declaring the Prime Minister was “taking direct control” of the fight against coronavirus, while another said Sir Keir Starmer was “putting Boris Johnson on notice”.

In other words, the Prime Minister boldly announced he would do what he should already have been doing, while the leader of the opposition continues to do what he already has been doing.

With dynamic leadership like that, it’s no wonder the biggest political event of the week has been a 45 minute queue that saw MPs literally going round in circles.

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This week also has also seen the UK Statistics Authority accuse the government of contributing to a collapse in public trust by misusing statistics around coronavirus testing.

Ministers have been unable to say precisely how well England’s test and trace system is working, and Johnson - a man with a rap sheet when it comes to figures - had little data and few arguments.

So he scraped up the weakest defence of all - telling Starmer his questions were a bit mean. The UK built capacity for 200,000 coronavirus tests, couldn’t the Labour leader ease up on the hardworking men and women who helped the country overcome its glaring underpreparedness?

“That was an astonishing achievement, not by the Government, but by tens of thousands of people working to support the Government; I think that he should pay tribute to them and what they have achieved,” Johnson said, thumping the dispatch box as he decried Starmer’s “endless attacks on public trust and confidence”.

The Labour leader might have pointed out that public trust and confidence was coming under attack mainly from people answering the phone to pollsters; but Starmer was particularly committed to his ‘more in sorrow than anger’ routine.

“The Prime Minister is confusing scrutiny for attacks,” he said, almost apologising for leading the opposition. “I have supported the Government openly and I have taken criticism for it—but, boy, he has made it difficult to support this Government over the last two weeks.” That whole quote really is from Starmer, by the way, I haven’t moved on to Tory backbenchers.

Like their MPs, both party leaders seemed to be wandering aimlessly; at least, as the Prime Minister noted, farcical new voting arrangements have put parliamentarians in touch with their constituents. “Ordinary people are getting used to queuing for long periods to do their shopping,” Johnson huffed.

In what has become a regular fixture at PMQs, Starmer did extract a significant government u-turn when the Prime Minister said MPs who are shielding won’t have to join the conga line to vote.

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But even if he had Johnson rattled, it felt like an underpowered performance from Starmer, whose desire to seem constructive may have outlived its usefulness. “Our policy is test, trace and isolate; his policy is agree, U-turn and criticise,” the Prime Minister said at one point. Neither system appears to be fully operational.

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