PMQs: “Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze,” says Starmer. But will it land with voters?

Elliot Chappell
© Twitter/@UKLabour

Tory sleaze was front-and-centre of Prime Minister’s Questions for the second week running, as Keir Starmer focused today on the shady text messages between Boris Johnson and Sir James Dyson. It seemed easily rebuffed by the Prime Minister at first: he told MPs that he makes no apology for “shifting heaven and earth and doing everything I could” to fight Covid. And this is the problem for Labour. Do people care about backrooom deals, as long as the UK beats back the virus ravaging the country? Tory sleaze is nothing new, and it will be a tough job to translate Conservative cronyism accusations into electoral returns.

The PM brazenly attempted to hide his wrongdoing behind the efforts made by thousands of people across the country to supply the NHS with the tools it needed at the height of the pandemic. “It was entirely the right thing to do to work with all potential makers of ventilators at that time,” Johnson argued, pointing out that the former Labour PM Tony Blair agreed. The crucial hole in the defence, pointed out by Starmer today, is that thousands of businesses stepped up during the crisis but “they didn’t all have the chance to text the Prime Minister asking him to fix the tax system in exchange for doing that”.

The picture painted by Starmer today goes further than any one text message. The Labour leader made clear that while the PM promised to “fix” the tax rules for his friend, he has refused to fix so much for so many over the last year. Starmer asked: why has he not intervened to save the thousands of jobs in Liberty Steel? Why has he left three million self-employed people excluded from any economic support throughout the entirety of the pandemic? Why has he not ‘fixed it’ so that NHS nurses “get the pay rise they deserve” after their heroic sacrifice? “Is it now, quite literally, one rule for everyone who’s got the Prime Minister’s phone number and another for everyone else?”

There is a pattern here, Starmer told parliament. “The Prime Minister is fixing tax breaks for his friends,” he said. “The Chancellor is pushing the Treasury to help Lex Greensill, the Health Secretary is meeting Greensill for drinks and David Cameron is texting anybody who’ll reply.” Starmer made clear that while many have made huge sacrifices in the health crisis and suffered immensely, the pandemic has been a gold rush for the Tories and their mates – from dodgy deals on personal protective equipment, to Matt Hancock owning shares in a company delivering NHS services. “Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze,” Starmer concluded, echoing the “weak, weak, weak” attack on John Major by Blair in the ’90s. The hope for Labour is that, slowly, this sleaze being laid bare will now come to characterise this Conservative government.

Starmer looks set to keep returning to the well of cronyism at the heart of Downing Street. The PM told MPs he would “share all the details” of his text messages. It remains to be seen whether these attack lines can break through. Polls have been drifting wayward for Labour recently, with the Tories enjoying the success of the (NHS) vaccine roll-out. Polling at the weekend put the Conservatives 14 points ahead. Labour’s argument is the logical extension of the oft-repeated line that, while we are all in this Covid storm together, we are very much not in the same boat. Operating above the heads of ordinary people is a class handing out favours to their friends and making bank. The rhetoric is solid, but will voters care?

Everything Labour.
Every weekday morning.

By clicking ‘subscribe’ you confirm you have read and agree to our privacy policy

More from LabourList

Donate to fund our journalism


Subscribe to our Daily Email