Labour’s shiny new leader spent yesterday afternoon sternly staring into TV cameras speaking “directly” to Boris Johnson.
“The government hasn’t got a credible plan! It has lost control! It’s no longer following scientific advice,” he said.
Today he swapped the lurid fuchsia background for the Commons’ green benches, but his points were pretty much the same.
Still, at least this time he really could speak directly to the PM.
Circuit Breaker Starmer’s first charge was that Johnson had failed to listen to the advice of his scientists on how to curb Covid infections.
“Why did the Prime Minister reject that advice and abandon the science?” he asked.
Johnson said he had been advised that a “regional approach” was the way to “bring down the virus.”
The Prime Minister then had a lightbulb moment: “I might just remind him that on page ONE it says that all the interventions considered have associated costs…”
That one was for all the doubters who say Johnson isn’t a details man!
The PM went on to emphasise how the government wanted to put in place the “most stringent measures necessary” in areas where the virus was “surging”.
But Starmer zapped him back with another shock: “He probably hasn’t noticed that this morning, the council leaders in Greater Manchester that he’s just quoted, including the mayor and including the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, have said in a press statement that they support a circuit-break above Tier 3 restrictions. Keep up Prime Minister.”
(For once it appears scrupulous Starmer may not have quite got his facts straight. Bolton’s Tory leader David Greenhalgh later said he was “absolutely disgusted” that Starmer “misrepresented” him in the Commons.)
Track and trace and local restrictions “simply haven’t worked and we can’t stand by,” Starmer whirred.
He added: “So let’s not have the usual nonsense that anyone asking the Prime Minister a question about track and trace is somehow knocking the NHS.
“After £12 billion let’s have a straight answer – why does the Prime Minister think that his track and trace system has gone so wrong?”
Johnson jolted into action: “It is thanks to NHS Test and Trace – that is now testing more people than any other country in Europe – that we know where the disease is surging.”
The powered-up PM then turned on Starmer: “He wants to close pubs, he wants to close bars, he wants to close businesses in areas across the country where the incidence is low.
“That’s what he wants to do, and he wants to do it now and yet he voted to do nothing last night, nothing in the areas where the incidence is highest.”
The PM then went on to attack Starmer’s press conference intervention: “He says one thing at 5 o’clock about calling for a national lockdown…[but] when it came to a vote in this House of Commons to impose more stringent measures he failed even to turn up!”
Starmer then appeared to read out one of his jokes to much cheer from his MPs: “I know that for someone who has been an opportunist all his life this is difficult to understand, but having read and considered the Sage advice I have genuinely concluded that a circuit-break is in the national interest.”
In case you were in any doubt of Starmer’s sincerity, he added: “Genuinely concluded.”
In full flow, the Labour leader told Johnson his failures meant tougher measures are now “unavoidable” and pressed him for what his alternative plan was to get the R below one.
Johnson rebooted and came back with the best blow of the exchange: “Opportunism, is I’m afraid, is the name of the game for the party opposite.”
He added: “Let’s go back to the approach he was supporting on Monday, let’s try to avoid the misery of another national lockdown which he would want to impose in a headlong way.
“Let’s work together…to keep kids in school who he would now yank out! Keep our economy going and keep jobs and livelihoods supported in this country and let’s take the commonsensical region approach. And will he kindly spell out to all his colleagues across the whole of the country that is the best way forward as indeed he did on Monday.”
Starmer finally went off-grid, quipping that following advice “is now apparently opportunistic”, adding he could not think of a single scientist who backs Johnson’s strategy.
The PM powered home his approach, stating that his new three-tier local measures would reduce the R-rate.
Johnson added: “None of us want to see the disaster – the words of the shadow health spokesman [Jon Ashworth] – of a national lockdown. We don’t want to go there, we want the regional approach. He should cooperate with it.”
But Starmer, brandishing his pen, said a circuit-break was in the “national interest” before warning: “We are at a tipping point, time is running out.”
As he charged up for his final question, Starmer told the PM: “I’m sure the Prime Minister has his pre-prepared rant ready as usual…”
He asked about senior government sources quoted in the Telegraph as saying that the chances of the Prime Minister backing a circuit-break in the next two weeks were about 80 per cent.
Boris Johnson replied: “He claims to be supporting the Government one day, and then performs a dramatic U-turn the next.
“Everybody can see what he’s doing. Labour have said it themselves, they see this as a good crisis for the Labour Party and one they wish to exploit — we see this as a national crisis that we are going to turn around.”
But what about Sir Keir’s beloved circuit breaker Prime Minister? Give him something. Anything.
“I rule out nothing, of course, in combating the virus,” he finally said with the caveat that it would be with the “local, regional approach”.
Today’s PMQs was a robot war of whataboutery. No you’re an opportunist!
Starmer largely stuck to his pre-prepared script while Johnson parroted the usual Labour attack lines.
If PMQs wasn’t zapped of energy already, Ian Blackford beamed in from his living room. By then everyone was wishing for a circuit break.