Keir Starmer has taken a stand by telling the government to implement a national ‘circuit break’ lockdown, as recommended by its scientific advisory group SAGE three weeks ago. In his first live televised press conference as Labour leader, he spoke more clearly than he has ever done before – more clearly than Boris Johnson ever does – and put forward his case for a bold but entirely reasonable measure in the coronavirus crisis. The demand married together SAGE opinion, public opinion, Andy Burnham’s opinion (the man knows how to get a news line) and even – the toughest of all unity challenges – most of the Labour Party’s opinion. MPs and activists now have a solid alternative plan to get behind and promote to the country, whether on the airwaves or in family catch-ups on Zoom.
Boris Johnson’s Tories are rattled: evidence includes the misleading CCHQ Press tweet and the sad little anonymous quote fed to top lobby journalists last night that described Starmer as a “shameless opportunist playing political games”. We all know that the Prime Minister is the one paying more attention to the internal politics of his party than the rising infection rates, re-escalating care home crisis and desperate need for more financial support. They must know that Starmer has just played a blinder: if the government does go for a circuit break, the Labour leader looks like big boss calling the shots; if they refuse, he’ll be ‘Bruce Foresight’ rather than ‘Captain Hindsight’.
There is undeniable logic in trying a two- or three-week break over half-term to avoid a longer, April-style lockdown over the Christmas period. The call has allowed Starmer to show leadership and commit to a specific course of action. Johnson, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be taking the whole thing that seriously. On a call with Tory MPs last night, he laughed off Theresa May’s serious suggestion of adding business people to SAGE because it could then be called ‘beige’. Katy Balls also reports that he answered the question “what can you tell me about Christmas?” with the reply: “It’s a religious festival that’s been celebrated 2020 years”.
The Prime Minister will probably try to portray Labour as divided over coronavirus restrictions at PMQs this afternoon. He may cite Jonathan Ashworth this week saying a full national lockdown would be “disastrous” as proof that Labour is flip-flopping, though the Shadow Health Secretary was talking about the kind of lockdown a circuit breaker is intended to avoid. But the leadership did well to give backbenchers a free vote on the 10pm hospitality curfew last night, which allowed 23 MPs to vote against it without causing a rebellion. And Starmer can hit back by highlighting the Whitty-predicted ineffectiveness of the new tier system and the ‘levelling down’ consequences of the government’s current approach. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.