PMQs: Starmer sidesteps Brexit to attack Johnson on testing failures

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Silence on Brexit. That was the accusation thrown by Boris Johnson at Keir Starmer in today’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Johnson has pledged to walk away from negotiations with Brussels if no deal is reached by October 15th, and the government yesterday said it would break international law – something the Prime Minister was happy to point out. But the Labour leader wasn’t drawn, and chose to go with a different tack this afternoon. Reverting to a Jeremy Corbyn-esque anecdotal style, he chose to focus on the abundant problems with the government’s test and trace programme.

The Labour leader asked: whose fault are the reported problems with test and trace? Is it, as the director of the programme said last night, a problem with capacity at laboratories? Or is it, as Matt Hancock argued, the fault of the public requesting tests when they don’t need them? The usual focus on detail surfaced as Starmer brought out the latest government figures, which “show that on average 75,000 tests are not being used every day”. He spoke of a woman in London trying to get a test for her four-year-old child. She was told to go to centres in Brighton, Telford, Inverness and finally Swansea. Why are people being told to go hundreds of miles for a test and why are people being told there’s no capacity?

All good questions. And we got one notable answer from the PM when he sided with the Health Secretary to say it’s a problem of demand. Johnson had one of his better (or less terrible?) sessions today, though maybe that is only compared to his dire performance last week. The PM shrugged off the jabs at his technical competence, accusing Starmer of ‘talking down’ the work of NHS staff: “It’s hard work. It’s a big job.” He said the Labour leader was simply trying to “undermine confidence in test and trace” and should keep shtum. Starmer’s decision not to mention the planned breach of international law, or concerns cited by the Welsh and Scottish leaders about the government’s plans to seize devolved powers, was not lost on the PM. “When it comes to sticking up for our UK internal market… he is totally silent on this bill that obsesses the rest of his backbenchers.”

This is a tricky area for the Labour leader. Go too hard on the government’s shenanigans around Brexit, and risk being accused of frustrating the ‘will of the people’. Starmer’s silence on the issue is symptomatic of the careful line he is treading. When asked, he will continue to tell the PM to “get on and negotiate” the deal he promised, rather than be seen as a barrier to leaving the EU. For now at least, he doesn’t want to weigh in on the debate unprompted. There will certainly be plenty of opportunity to raise the issue as we go forward – not least when it comes to the crunch point the PM has himself set in October. Some might see today as a missed opportunity, but Starmer is maintaining the strategy of letting the government fail on its own terms.

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