Keir Starmer went on the attack at this week’s PMQs, and his interrogation of Boris Johnson made headlines. The Prime Minister was left squirming when confronted with evidence that the government had said the infection of care home residents was “unlikely”, in advice that was issued up until mid-March. His first instinct was to deny that the advice was issued, although of course it was. And his second reaction was to remind Starmer of his commitment to “work constructively with the government”. This was the somewhat petulant letter sent by the Prime Minister in response to Starmer’s demand that he “correct the record” in the Commons. The Labour leader has successfully identified his own strengths (incisive probing) and the weaknesses of his opponent (a total lack of interest in detail) to produce an effective PMQs strategy.
The Labour leadership has not wanted to talk about a future public inquiry into the government’s handling of coronavirus, other than to say one is “inevitable”. Starmer has been “trying to resist calls for apologies or criticising past decisions”, to use his own words. But he is now using the opposition leader role, and particularly PMQs, to shape that inevitable inquiry. Many are wondering whether Johnson will do better at these weekly sessions once parliament is no longer virtual and feels less like a courtroom. A braying crowd of Tory MPs doing their best to distract and heckle the Labour leader will surely make his job tougher. But the real problem is that Johnson’s ‘broad brushstrokes’ style of leadership is ill-suited to such a complex crisis – and this mismatch will not have disappeared.
While Starmer ensures that Labour puts its criticisms of the crisis response on the record, he must still work on his other main task – internal party reform. The deadline for applications to the post of Labour general secretary was supposed to be today, as determined by the original super speedy timetable. But it has been lengthened: candidates will now have until May 18th to apply, longlisting is now on 19th, shortlisting on 21st, and the final vote on 26th. The whole process will take a week longer, which is crucial if the leader’s office wants to find a couple of unexpected candidates of its own liking. And new BAME rep Carol Sewell has been added to the panel responsible for long- and shortlisting. These changes represent a clear win for the leadership.
If you’re interested in the process and the politics of picking a Labour general secretary, Luke Akehurst’s latest LabourList piece is a must-read. It explains what a GS does, who has done the job before, how they were appointed and why. There is also some juicy detail about how events unfolded when Luke was a member of the national executive committee and Iain McNicol was chosen in 2011 – against the wishes of the incumbent leadership. The alliances formed within such a tiny selectorate, influenced as they are by personal relationships, are often less predictable than one might assume. And there is plenty more news to come from the ruling body. I hear that the switch to a single transferable vote (STV) system for NEC elections is on the agenda of the next meeting on Tuesday. This would be a huge victory for the soft left. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.