This Prime Minister’s Questions, ahead of the long-awaited spending review later shortly afterwards, saw Keir Starmer contrast Tory cronyism and wasted taxpayer cash against the struggle of key workers facing the prospect of a pay freeze. Taking MPs point-by-point through the ministerial code this afternoon – which prohibits bullying, harassment, leaking, misuse of taxpayers money and actual or perceived conflicts of interest – Starmer painted a stark picture, from bullying and harassment by Priti Patel to Matt Hancock hiring his mates for top jobs. The Labour leader concluded: “It’s the same old story, one rule for the British public and another for the Prime Minister and his friends.”
Starmer built upon lines of attack the Labour Party has been developing over recent weeks as the scale of Tory cronyism and incompetence has become increasingly apparent. Indeed, last week saw the Labour leader point out a number of the dodgy procurement deals made by the government. He reiterated and expanded on those today. He highlighted, for example, new information suggesting that the government bought over 184 million items of unusable personal protective equipment. And the strategy lets Starmer not only emphasise an out-of-touch and corrupt Etonian clique taking the country from crisis to crisis in the pandemic, but also the poor character and leadership of a PM resolutely “standing by” his friends instead of firing them. The PM tried to land a blow in return, asking Starmer whether he is happy Jeremy Corbyn is still in the party. Starmer replied: “The difference is that I’m tackling the issues in my party – he’s running away from the issues in his.”
The main step change today was that Starmer moved from the description of fiscal recklessness and cronyism over government contracts in the crisis to demand the pay rise for key workers. He asked: “Will the Prime Minister finally get his priorities right, stop wasting taxpayers money and give police officers, firefighters, care workers and other key workers the pay rise they so obviously deserve?” Johnson attempted to tell the Commons that Starmer was “focusing on trivia”. But this could not be further from the truth.
The Chancellor, delivering his statement shortly after PMQs, announced the expected public sector pay freeze and slash in the rise to the minimum wage. A return to austerity that both he and Johnson told us would not happen. Starmer made clear this afternoon that while the Tories have just asked the people to trust in their call for fiscal prudence, laying the burden of the pandemic on millions of the lowest paid and those on the frontline, they have spent months “spraying public money at contracts”. While friends of the Tories make bank and the PM wastes your hard-earned cash, low-paid workers will pay the price.