Keir Starmer’s chosen topics at Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon made no secret of his strategy as Labour leader. He won the leadership election last year after a campaign geared towards appealing to a liberal anti-Brexit constituency; he now hopes to win the next general election after years of rehabilitating Labour’s reputation on issues that matter greatly to a socially small-c conservative constituency.
Some thought Starmer would increase pressure today on Universal Credit, following a Tory rebellion that was small in terms of Commons votes this week but much larger behind the scenes. He could have made the point well by comparing the social security payment uplift to the huge government spend on Deloitte consultants, as suggested by Paul Waugh. But the opposition leader instead followed where his electoral strategy led him: to the Police National Computer data loss and to Priti Patel’s comments on border control during Covid.
Hundreds of thousands of data items, including finger prints, crime scene data and DNA records, were lost as a result of human error, it was revealed this month. Starmer grilled Boris Johnson on the details. How many criminal investigations could have been damaged by this mistake? How many convicted criminals have had their records wrongly defeated? He described his questions as “basic” ones that “any Prime Minister would have asked of those briefing him”, thus positioning himself as a more responsible and capable alternative to Johnson. The message: ‘As a meticulous former director of public prosecutions, I know how to deal with these situations effectively – and I care about your safety.’
Starmer’s next focus was slightly more controversial, as he picked up on the fresh story of Priti Patel saying UK borders should have closed in March and she was in favour of the move at the time. Johnson did not deny that he disagreed with the Home Secretary then, and many would say he made the wrong call, but of course the reply came that the Labour leader “now praises the Home Secretary” and is “now in favour of tough border controls”. The PM again called his opposite “Captain Hindsight”, accusing him of having “changed his tune to suit events”, and for good measure highlighted Starmer’s leadership campaign pledge for continued freedom of movement, which has now been abandoned.
There are criticisms from some activists within Labour of the approach being taken by the leadership on Tory territory issues such as border controls, including controls during the pandemic. It is argued by some that in the long term normalising such restrictions could damage Labour and the values that it should promote around the movement of people, though many others in the party disagree and would see the two issues as distinct. Whoever is right, the problem for Starmer is that he did adopt one tone to win over members, and takes a very different approach now. Johnson will keep highlighting these past comments to make sure the about-turn is well-known, while also using Starmer’s new stance to his advantage.
The other, perhaps more serious but thankfully more resolvable, problem for Starmer is that of cut-through. He was forensic, as the cliché now goes, on data losses. Full marks for technical detail. But will anyone outside Westminster know that he cares about the issue? One Labour frontbencher tweeted during PMQs: “This isn’t just a technical issue: it’s about criminals not being caught, and victims not getting justice.” It was this human side of the error that was missing from Starmer’s line of questioning.