Sir Keir Starmer the brutal populist does not convince. His own MPs watched unhappily as in broad daylight he dug a hole, planted some sharpened stakes at the bottom of it and tried to trick the Prime Minister into falling into it.
Starmer told the House about a convicted people smuggler who had thrown boiling water over a prison officer and received a custodial sentence. Did the PM agree this was the right sentence?
Rishi Sunak would have had to be pretty dim to fall for this, and instead said that under this Government average custodial sentences have increased by two-thirds.
The Labour leader then revealed the shocking news that “the sentence ended up being suspended”, and condemned Sunak: “He’s letting violent criminals go free.”
One can, of course, condemn the courts for being too lenient, but Starmer of all people should know that to comment on a particular case, without any of the details the judge would have heard, is a not entirely reputable way to proceed.
“Look at me!” the Labour leader declared. “I’m hard as nails!”
Labour’s recent attack ad, in which it accused Sunak of not wishing to send “adults convicted of sexually assaulting children” to prison, had prompted the PM and his staff to work out how he might defend himself by drawing attention to Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions.
So the PM pointed out that Starmer had “attended 21 sentencing meetings to water down punishments”, and went on: “That’s why they call him Sir Softie.”
Not the most brilliant line ever invented, but it has a certain tabloid lightness of touch. In two words “Sir Softie” conveys the essential bogusness of Starmer’s entire position.
The Labour leader is a high-minded member of the human rights Establishment, not a vindictive “lock them up and throw away the key” disciplinarian.
Tony Blair finessed this problem by promising to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, a brilliant formula which united the future PM, by trade a liberal lawyer, with traditional Labour voters.
Starmer and his scriptwriters lack that finesse. The House saw him pretending to be a playground bully who intimidates the other children by striking the lowest and most painful blows.
His colleagues watched with the anxious air of primary school parents whose child has been miscast in the nativity play.
Tory MPs enjoyed the PM’s retorts, but reserved their warmest and most derisive applause for Stephen Flynn, the Scots Nats’ leader at Westminster.
When at last he could make himself heard, he said he was glad they had enjoyed “a peaceful and relaxing Easter break, as did I,” and observed with amusement that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives is “urging voters to back Labour”.
At the start of PMQs, Abena Oppong-Asare (Labour, Erith and Thamesmead) cited the PM’s recent interview with ConHome in which he referred to dropping housing targets.
Sunak replied, with a faint hint of irony, that the Government believes in “empowering local communities”, and pointed out that Labour-led London is worst of all at building houses.