As the weeks go on, Sir Keir Starmer is morphing from a lawyer to a streetfighter. He needs to. Because the dangerous glint in Boris Johnson’s eye at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions carried the unspoken message: “Watch me take this guy out.”
This was the first clash since the Dominic Cummings scandal - a Downing Street breach of its own rules so outrageous and embarrassing that some MPs expected the PM to arrive in the House wearing a hair shirt and a tight-fitting celice. Penance, however, is not a Johnsonian habit.
Labour’s leader started out by pouncing on the PM’s failure to mention the racist killing of George Floyd in the United States and the response of President Trump. “I am surprised the Prime Minster has not said anything about this yet,” said Starmer, sounding very unsurprised.
His main question was a jibe over a Daily Telegraph story that Johnson was taking direct charge of the coronavirus crisis. “So who’s been in direct control up ‘til now?” asked Starmer.
Johnson fell over himself to “associate myself, absolutely” with Sir Keir’s horror over the “inexcusable” death in custody of Mr Floyd. We soon found out why the Tory leader appeared so keen to agree so wholeheartedly with his opponent: It was a foil to set against his pre-planned attack on Labour’s leader as a political whinger whose endless moaning was undermining the national effort against the pandemic.
“What I think the country would like to hear from him [Sir Keir] is more signs of co-operation in that endeavour,” said Johnson, who dubiously claimed to have managed “considerable achievements” in protecting the NHS.
Sir Keir, however, had seen this coming. Labour has focus groups, too, and like Johnson he was aware that the public mood is getting impatient with public bickering by politicians during the crisis.
“A fair challenge,” agreed Starmer, who had laid a trap for the PM. As the Prime Minister knew perfectly well, he told MPs, Starmer wrote to him two weeks ago offering his personal help getting a peace deal for primary schools to open.
“I did it confidentially, in private, because I didn’t want to make a lot of it,” said Sir Keir, modestly, adding after a smug pause his killer fact: “He hasn’t replied.”
This was a classy exchange between two chess players who had both accurately predicted their opponent’s moves. How would it play out?
Johnson contrived to sound hurt: “I’m surprised he should take that tone since I took the trouble to ring him up,” he cried. According to the PM’s account, he gave Starmer a full briefing and at the end of their call Sir Keir “didn’t offer any dissent” and indeed “he thoroughly endorsed our approach.”
What the public wanted, claimed Johnson, was for “clarity from across the political spectrum”.
A pause is needed to savour the sheer nonsense of this: A Prime Minister whose Government has presided over slightly over 50,000 deaths of Covid-19 victims, the worst roll in Europe, was berating the Opposition leader for not being supportive enough.
When Sir Keir asked about the recent loss of trust in the Government, Johnson accused him of trying to “distract” from the falling rate of infections.
Starmer battered on by asking the PM why he had promised a “world-beating” test and trace system by June 1 when his own aides publicly admitted it would not be fully ready for another month.
Johnson replied that Starmer was “casting aspersions on the efforts of tens of thousands of people” who set up the system.
Starmer pulled put the eviscerating letter by the chair of the UK statistics authority berating the dodgy figures on testing pumped out by ministers. “Can the Prime Minister see how damaging this is to public trust?”
Johnson’s retort caused the Labour leader visibly to curl his lips. “I really do not see the purpose of his endless attacks on public trust and confidence.”
Starmer snapped back coldly the soundbite of the day: “Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister’s confusing scrutiny for attacks.”
But the Labour leader was now having to defend himself, a sign that Johnson’s tactic was working. “I have supported the government openly,” said Starmer, “I’m not taking criticism for it. But, boy, it makes it difficult to support this Government over the last two weeks.”
Starmer was not finished yet, he forced the Prime Minister to confirm that the covid alert level remains stubbornly stuck at four, rather than half way between three and four, as ministers sought to imply at the weekend when they relaxed restrictions further.
Johnson said it was no longer possible to tell if Starmer backed or opposed the easing of the lockdown curbs. “At the weekend he was backing it, now he’s doing a U turn”.
Starmer took the moral high ground, reminding the PM of his letter, sent privately “because I thought it needed leadership and consensus, and I privately offered to do what I could to build that consensus. That’s the offer that wasn’t taken up, Mr Speaker”.
For his final question he struck gold, forcing a U-turn and an apology from the PM over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s policy depriving shielding MPs from being able to speak and vote electronically, a decision Starmer said was “completely unnecessary and unacceptable”.
Johnson breezily responded; “I apologise to colleagues for the inconvenience, and I apologise to all those who have particular difficulties with it... they should be able to vote by proxy.”
But the PM’s humility lasted but a nanosecond before he was back on the attack at Starmer for having the cheek to behave like an Opposition Leader. “Our policies are test, test, test and isolate - his policy is ‘agree, U-turn and criticise’!” Utter nonsense, you may well feel, but Boris Johnson’s entire career has been built on an acute understanding of the British appetite for nonsense.