Keir Starmer kicked off Prime Minister’s Questions today with the row that has engulfed Downing Street since Boris Johnson’s loose-lipped devolution comments on Monday. The Labour leader told MPs this afternoon: “The single biggest threat to the UK is the Prime Minister, every time he opens his mouth on this. When the Prime Minister said he wanted to take back control, nobody thought he meant from the Scottish people.” The problem is not devolution, the PM protested, but that the SNP have turned it into a “mission to break up the UK”. Starmer used the opportunity to call for further devolution.
The main focus this afternoon was Tory government contracts during Covid, however. Starmer contrasted money handed out in dodgy procurement deals with the persistent refusal by government to protect workers and stop children going hungry. Highlighting a “huge gap” in the Covid isolation system, he called out the government for undermining public health efforts, arguing: “If you can’t afford to isolate, there’s little point in being tested or traced.” He brought up the £21m paid in taxpayer cash to a ‘go-between‘ to secure personal protective equipment for NHS staff, while reminding the Commons that Johnson refused to find £20m to fund free school meals for children over half term. And the Labour leader referred MPs to the damning National Audit Office report, which found that half of all Covid contracts, worth £10.5bn, have been handed out without a competitive tender process and that suppliers with political contacts were ten times more likely to be successful.
Accusations of Tory cronyism and corruption in government procurement are mounting. The report from the NAO will damage public confidence and the Conservatives face numerous legal challenges, including over helping ‘VIPs’ to win lucrative contracts. The Labour leader took the opportunity today to hammer home the point that the Tory PM is in it for his friends. Starmer is banking on tolerance for mates’ rates being low at a time of national crisis. But many members of the public may not be shocked by news of Conservative cronyism from a government dominated by a small, elite clique of Etonian schoolmates. The challenge for Labour is to make the tales of Tory cronyism stick.