PMQs: Not just competence. Starmer knows he can and must fight on values

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer took the public on a tour of the government’s internal contradictions on coronavirus today. The Prime Minister described test and trace three months ago as a “game changer”, the Labour leader reminded the House – and yet yesterday Boris Johnson said it had “very little or nothing” to do with the spread of the virus. And, Starmer asked, what exactly is the problem with testing in the UK? Is it, as Dido Harding has suggested, a lack of capacity? Or is it the fault of the public seeking tests when they don’t need it, as Health Secretary Matt Hancock has argued? Between his Covid briefings and his appearance before the Commons liaison committee, the Prime Minister has suggested both.

The Labour leader this afternoon reflected public confusion after several weeks of garbled messaging from the government. “Get a test if in doubt,” Hancock told us several times in July. Two months later, people are apparently wasting our finite testing capacity doing exactly that. 30 children cannot go feed the ducks in the park, but 30 men can meet to shoot those same ducks. And while the chief medical officer warns the UK is on track for 50,000 new daily cases by October if we don’t change course, the only real response from the PM has been to order bars, pubs and restaurants to close at 10pm. Hammering home this head-scratching torrent of contradictions and reiterating a point he made yesterday, Starmer highlighted that although new restrictions are to be imposed, there is a complete absence of any financial support for those affected.

The PM had no intention of engaging on any of these issues. Johnson has shown repeatedly that he cannot win on the detail, and he now simply won’t try to. Instead, as he has done repeatedly in the crisis, he tried to invoke the strong support and gratitude he knows the public feel for our health workers. Calling for a “spirit of togetherness”, Johnson presented a question from the Labour leader about the director of the test and trace programme as an attack on NHS staff. But the Labour leader was ready today: “My complaint is not with the NHS, it’s with the government. My wife works in the NHS. My mother worked for the NHS. My sister works for the NHS. So, I’m not going to take lectures on supporting the NHS.” An interesting and important development in his strategy, and reinforcing the tone of his first speech to conference as leader – in which he explained just how much he loves his country. Starmer wants people to know that not only is he competent, he also shares key British values. He knows that Labour must, and can, fight Johnson on the sentimental as well as the technical.

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