PMQs: The PM has a ‘whack-a-mole strategy’. But when does the mole go down?

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

I personally wanted to see a pop quiz on the Covid restrictions this afternoon, following Boris Johnson’s clear failure to grasp the rules yesterday. But Keir Starmer opted for a different tack. He did mention Johnson’s embarrassing mix-up, quipping that “having sat opposite the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions every week, that didn’t come as a surprise”. But his focus was on the concerns of lockdown area residents and on the lack of economic support put forward by the Chancellor in his economic update last week.

Starmer highlighted that 48 areas have so far been placed under local lockdown restrictions, but only one area has been released from those measures. Reminding the Commons that the PM himself described this as a “whack-a-mole” strategy, the Labour leader remarked: “That implies that at some point the mole goes down, and restrictions are lifted.” Why are the local measures not working, he asked, and why are infections still going up where lockdowns are in place? Focusing on the one area that has been released, Johnson said “local people pulled together to depress the virus, to follow the guidance” and that this was the way forward for the whole country. For the PM, infections are rising not due to poor guidance, mixed messaging, Eat Out to Help Out, universities reopening or anything else – it is the fault of the public.

Stressing that jobs are at risk now due to the new rules, and that the training scheme announced by the government on Tuesday does not start until April, Starmer told the PM: “There is a gap here.” Being careful to emphasise that he does support the new restrictions, Starmer stressed that many jobs are at risk. His ask was simple: “Can the economic support go in for those that will lose their jobs?” Using an email from one of Chancellor’s own constituents and a wedding venue operator, Starmer accused Rishi Sunak of having made a “political choice to reduce economic support just when the new health restrictions are coming in”. The focus on Sunak was telling, and reflects the new attack line that emerged from the party overnight. Failure for the Covid response must not all fall on the Tory leader. The opposition has recognised that if Johnson goes anytime soon, Sunak is the favourite to replace him.

The nuance in Starmer’s position was (deliberately) lost on the PM. Johnson’s comments were recycled as he hit all of his favourite lines: blaming the public for rising infections; accusing Labour of just wanting to “snipe from the sidelines”; and telling MPs that Starmer has flip-flopped throughout the pandemic on support for government measures. “The idea that anybody who asks the PM a question at Prime Minister’s Questions is undermining the government effort is wearing a bit thin,” Starmer told parliament this afternoon. But while the remarks from Johnson might seem stale and obtuse to the Westminster bubble, the PM is banking that the nuance of Labour’s argument is lost on the public. His message is clear: Labour is undermining the national effort, while the Tories want us all to “pull together”.

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