PMQs was the last rites for coronavirus consensus

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Boris Johnson do battle over the government's pandemic strategy.

PMQs was the last rites for coronavirus consensus Getty Images

For some weeks now there has been a clear sense that the initial cross-party consensus on Covid-19 would not withstand further bouts of scrutiny as the fault lines of this pandemic drive a wedge between government and opposition.

Today, was a sort of last rites for that consensus.

It is the job of Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Leader, to hold the government to account for their stewardship of the crisis. At Prime Minster’s Questions today, Boris Johnson decided a line of defence should be attack.

In this still sparsely attended crucible of accountability, the crossfire is frequently faux, with questions anchored in protests that are too much or retorts that are overly animated, usually a sure sign that the point the PM is being hounded with is too close to the bone for comfort.

Today, however, it was apparent that Starmer believes the Prime Minster to be a disinterested driver of the pandemic strategy, not so much asleep at the wheel but long since slumped over it. Not to be outdone, Johnson clearly thinks that Starmer is now exploiting the crisis for political gain.

Sir Keir doesn’t do outrage but he is big on wearing a face that says ‘Is HE for real?’. He quoted the Conservative party house journal, The Daily Telegraph, in his first question. Today they reported Boris Johnson had taken ‘direct control’ of strategy. Who has been in control up until now, asked the troubled Sir Keir.

The Prime Minister derided this as a “polemical point” before going on to praise his own record and prodding his bulldog spirit when declaring that “British common sense” will defeat the virus. What is Sir Keir doing about maintaining consensus?

Time for Sir Keir to change face. The troubled countenance gave way to ‘rung one’ incredulous. The Labour leader told MPs he had written to Johnson two weeks ago on the need for a common front but hadn’t received a reply to his letter.

The PM shot back that he had briefed the Labour leader by phone and that he – and here I paraphrase – did not dissent on issues of substance. In that case, countered Starmer, you won’t mind if I make my letter public.

Sir Keir, somewhat handily, just happened to have a copy of the letter with him. Johnson is still not savvy in the manner of avoiding the little trap doors that Starmer constructs for him.

And so it went on.

Starmer alleged trust in the government had collapsed, that the PM’s world-beating test, track and trace system was anything but and that the presentation of statistics was, well, dodgy (my word, not Sir Keir’s) but it amounted to the same. There were pointed questions on the numbers that have been traced under the strategy.

Johnson sensed it was time to go into attack mode in a strategy that could be summed up as ‘animate, debate and avoid’, the last of which led to dancing around the question. And in an obviously pre-rehearsed line he accused the Labour leader of employing “agree, u-turn, criticise” on the issue of consensus.

Sir Keir at this point was on the top rung of his incredulity face. You are confusing “scrutiny with attacks”, he told the Prime Minister, who sat looking like the Dulux dog. Johnson must have thought, ‘oh for a barber as well as a knock out counter punch’.

They then traded barbs on the full return of parliament. That some MPs might not be able to vote remotely from home was branded as ‘shameful’ by Starmer.

Johnson said people expected MPs to be back at their work doing their jobs but the point was not punched home being somewhat lost in a preamble about “ordinary people doing their shopping” and facing long waits. I was not sure what that had to do with the price of mince let alone the matter under discussion.

Sir Keir is a tricky customer, overly lawyerly at times but sharp in the manner of making a point and genteelly rolling the odd grenade across the chamber with a face that says ‘go on pick it up. You know you want to’.

Sir Keir and the SNPs Ian Blackford raised the silence of the UK Government on the killing of George Floyd in the United States. “Say it Prime Minster, say black lives matter,” demanded Blackford.

The Prime Minister obliged, nodded at a certain solidarity but could not bring himself to give the American president the metaphorical kicking which Sir Keir and Blackford thought so richly should come his way.