The strangest of times for Starmer’s first PMQs
The routine of PMQs is obvious. Since Blair changed the format in 1997 (Blairs first PMQs is worth watching – even for my 20 seconds of doughnutting) to Wednesday lunch time it’s a regular feature of the political week. But lockdown has done strange things and I thought yesterday was Tuesday. I had wanted to see how Starmer went on… I did after all watch Corbyn at his first outing to see how he would cope. I even wrote a Mercury Column praising some of the style. Probably the last positive thing I ever said about Corbyn.
So I was slightly surprised when my timeline in twitter lit up after my lunchtime daily run with near universal praise for Starmer and headlines which paraphrase as – at last we have a serious opposition back!
I found the online recordings and watched for myself. Whilst the format was of course completely different, Starmer hit the right tone in difficult circumstances. Polling shows the public don’t want us to play politics with Coronavirus. This is difficult because of course many of the mistakes and shortcomings of the government are deeply political. Starmer has said from the beginning he would be constructive in his opposition. This is an important distinction. Opposing does not mean disagreeing with everything the government does or assuming their intentions are ‘evil’ as many on the hard left seem to think. So in the current climate the 6 questions were used well, and his ability to think on his feet was a real bonus. Corbyn’s team got better at some of the questions but his inability to adapt to the answers he was given was embarrassing.
Whilst his team will be pleased with the headlines today (from most of the media) they know they shouldn’t get carried away. This was not a normal House of Commons PMQ. It will take time but the noise and bluster of PMQs will return over time. The calm barristers style might not survive over the noise. I hope it does. The House is at its best when its quiet and has to do serious. We need that more often. Yesterday was bizarre to watch for those who have sat through the wall of noise. I recall having to hold my nerve when the Tory opposition tried to drown out my question on job losses at Astra Zeneca. I was 13 years in by then, simply paused and waited and pointed out how people would view them laughing at people losing their jobs. It worked and I carried on. Keir is a much better parliamentary performer than I will ever have been. I think he will cope.
But also of course he was facing Raab, who has been like a rabbit caught in the headlights since his first day standing in for Johnson. When the PM returns to work he will have some of the public sympathy that the press seem to have created for him after recovering from the Virus. It will be a different proposition. Johnson doesn’t even attempt to answer the question – bumbling and rambling his way through as usual. It’s infuriating to those who watch closely. The unknown factor will be how long this public adulation of the government’s handling of the crisis can hold? That’s why Starmer got the tone right. Not too much hindsight and told you so – but skewering Raab on their own claims and predictions on PPE and testing for example. For the record I think the Government have made a whole series of avoidable mistakes – including the slow response to lockdown. As a family we had decided to lockdown about 10 days ahead of the government finally getting around to it.
One final observation. I say it was near universal praise yesterday. My timeline was also punctured by some Corbynites claiming Starmer didn’t shout or show enough anger and that the Party is a sell-out etc. I guess we are going to have to live with those who demanded loyalty to their great leader disparaging Starmer with venom at every twist and turn without any sense of irony. The one thing about lockdown I miss will be the bumping into people over the next few days and being able to gauge a more general mood and response from those who don’t follow politics too closely.
There is a long way to go. A long way. But a good solid start was vital to land a decent narrative. Competence is a great badge to collect.