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Sir Keir Starmer’s approach at PMQs is working better and better against Boris Johnson. For 11 minutes the Leader of the Opposition asked clear, detailed questions about various glaring weaknesses in the authorities’ response to the pandemic, starting with the failure for eight days to follow up almost 16,000 positive tests.
Johnson loathes this kind of precision, and tried to deflect it by suggesting that the Labour Party has been inconstant in its support for the Government’s measures.
Starmer proceeded undaunted with his cross-examination: “Twenty local areas in England have been under local restrictions for two months. In 19 of those 20 areas the infection rates have gone up… It’s obvious that something’s gone wrong here, so what’s the Prime Minister going to do about it?”
The Prime Minister: “Well Mr Speaker as he knows we’re continuing to provide support, five billion pounds of support for the er the North West, the North East, er, for the lockdown, the extra restrictions they’re experiencing…”
Windy assurances in response to detailed inquiries did not work. Starmer began to patronise his victim: “Let me take this slowly for him…these are not trick questions…will he level with the people of Bury, Burnley and Bolton and tell them what does he actually think the problem is here?”
Johnson: “Mr Speaker, the problem is alas that the disease continues to spread in the way that I described to the House earlier…” A glimpse there of the truth, and for a moment it cleared the air.
Starmer’s last question looked to the future: “Will the Prime Minister commit to publishing the scientific basis for the ten p.m. rule before the House votes on it next Monday?”
Johnson naturally declined to give any such assurance. But he will know that quite a few of his own backbenchers are infuriated by the Government’s handling of the pandemic, and by his reluctance to take the House into his confidence.
The Prime Minister needs a new, more straightforward manner on occasions like this, in order to carry parliamentary and public opinion with him.
Having suffered an interruption the first time I heard these exchanges, I listened to them again, and found that second time round they sounded worse for Johnson.