Keir Starmer faced off against Boris Johnson in what the Labour leader described as “probably” the last Prime Minister’s Questions session of the year this afternoon. Probably, because there is still no post-Brexit trade deal and MPs may have to sit on New Year’s Eve to ratify any agreement reached before the transition period ends. Neither he nor the PM mentioned Brexit explicitly, however. The Labour leader instead looked at the pandemic-related decisions made during 2020. He slammed Johnson for being too slow to act, and losing public confidence in the pandemic, with a Barnard Castle trip/eye test mention. How else does the PM explain why the sixth richest economy in the world has one of the highest Covid death tolls, Starmer asked, and has seen longer lockdowns and a slower economic recovery than many other European countries?
The debate soon turned to the more immediate concerns around Christmas, with the PM pressing ahead with plans to allow increased household mixing. As cases surge across the country, the pressure was on for Starmer to oppose outright the temporary expansion of Covid bubbles. Describing the plans as “the next big mistake”, the Labour leader highlighted the stark warning from the the Health Service Journal and British Medical Journal that the relaxation of rules will “cost many lives”. He challenged the PM to provide an assessment of the impact it would have on the NHS in January and predictably received no answer. We can expect that to be a major talking point for the leader of the opposition next month. He had already called for a review of the restrictions relaxation and said “doing nothing is not really viable” on Tuesday, but today saw a toughening of Starmer’s position – though no direct call for a change in the law.
Backbench Tory Michael Fabricant used a question to the PM to label Starmer a “smarmy lawyer”. The PM, for his part, focused mainly today on accusing Starmer of criticising the government record on handling Covid without putting forward a plan, and for being unable to take a position. Highlighting recent Labour abstentions, Johnson rounded off the session this afternoon by telling the Labour leader: “All I want for Christmas is a view.” This sums up the PM’s attack lines against Starmer this year. He welcomed the Labour leader to his role in April by attacking him for being too lawyerly. The Tory leader then dropped this when Starmer made competence (and Johnson’s lack thereof) the cornerstone of his oppositional style, leaning into the lawyer thing while Johnson acted the fool. As we look towards the New Year, and a possible Brexit vote before then, the charge for the Labour leader to shrug off now is that of indecision.