Keir Starmer again used Prime Minister’s Questions this week to push along the news agenda and potentially government policy too. Boris Johnson appeared to commit to having a testing and tracing operation in place by June 1st, with 25,000 contact tracers able to track 10,000 new cases a day, although ministers had previously said this would not be possible. The new target will offer another metric by which the Labour leader can hold the government to account on its own terms, allowing him to be critical without appearing to make those “impossible demands” that he warned against when first elected.
The opposition leader then announced that Labour would table an amendment to the immigration bill to exempt NHS and care workers from the immigration health surcharge. (This is the payment, required by some visa applications, that is due to increase from £400 a year to £624 in October.) When confronted with the idea, the Prime Ministers panicked and claimed it would cost the UK £900m. But Labour’s Seema Malhotra has said Johnson was either “poorly briefed or deliberately misleading” as analysis that she obtained from the Commons library shows the potential cost is “somewhere between £1.2m and £35m” depending on the scope of the exemption.
With a Tory majority of 80 in the Commons, the immigration bill passed easily at second reading and will do so at the third. Already, however, a Tory MP has publicly backed the call for the NHS and care worker exemption. Whether Starmer’s proposal chips away at Conservative consensus, highlights the true nature of the ‘nasty party’ or actually changes policy, there is no clear downside for the Labour leadership. Party members might take a different view, however.
Activists have raised concerns over the possibility that this amendment promotes ‘divide and rule’ tactics and implies that migrants must literally put their lives on the line to be seen as ‘deserving’. (Not to mention that other key workers taking risks are not included in the exemption.) Asked whether Labour was in favour of scrapping the charge altogether, Starmer’s spokesperson confirmed that it was, “but this amendment is specifically targeted at making a bad bill better”. The party hasn’t retreated policy-wise, it’s just that the new Labour leader reckons he should only pick fights that he has a chance of winning.
Labour’s general secretary appointment panel will interview and shortlist candidates today. There is much nervousness around the process because the national executive committee officers group has a clear left majority, and these are the members who form the panel. The leadership has only managed to add one ally, Shabana Mahmood, to it. The party’s right is pushing for David Evans, who held senior posts during the Blair era, and they are concerned that he might not be shortlisted. It is certainly true that left unions are not keen on him. But there are other candidates that the leadership would be happy with – indeed, Jon Lansman has suggested that Evans is a red herring. Follow LabourList today for all the developments. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.