Today saw the first exchanges between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the new Labour leader Keir Starmer at an eerie Prime Minister’s Questions.
I say eerie because social-distancing requirements and a ban on non-essential travel means that most MPs ask their questions in the new ‘virtual’ Commons in a case of from frontbench to front room.
Sir Keir, however, managed to directly eyeball Boris Johnson in a largely empty chamber devoid of the usual braying and juvenile theatrics. Given the national health crisis under discussion that was probably a blessing.
For longer than ten minutes the leader of the opposition asked a number of pointed and carefully crafted questions, each containing a direct or implied criticism of the government and asked in the manner of a barrister gently cajoling a witness who wasn’t entirely confident in his story.
Without ever becoming a fractious party political affair, Sir Keir questioned whether the government’s strategy could be considered a success given the horrific number of deaths. He probed if the government were on top of the crisis in care homes, inquired over an apparent inconsistent approach on testing and demanded assurances on protective equipment for workers who may be required to return to work as lockdown is gradually lifted.
The Prime Minister’s defences were that it was too early to make international comparisons on death rates and, on testing, he pledged that capacity would reach 200,000 tests per day by the end of this month. He conceded that it was “enraging” to hear persistent stories of key workers not having the right protective equipment.
If Starmer’s strategy was to mildly discomfit the Prime Minister without ever reaching for the jugular, then it seemed to this observer to have achieved its purpose.
The Labour leader was effective and struck the right tone, doing exactly what a leader of the opposition is supposed to do even when the instincts are to play to a unity tune in case the charge of political opportunism is made.
The SNPs Ian Blackford wanted to know if the Prime Minister’s ‘next steps’ review on Sunday would be agreed with the Scottish Government to ensure a four nations unity of purpose on the central strategy on Covid-19.
Johnson delivered soothing words without agreeing to the specifics of Blackford’s request.
The tone of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been markedly more hard-line on not lifting lockdown measures when compared to UK ministers.
Boris Johnson stopped short today of saying the UK and Scottish governments will definitely march in step come Sunday although it is clearly his wish.
It’s too early to say the four nation UK approach on Covid-19 may be unravelling. But the weekend may test the strategy to the limit of its endurance.