PMQs preview: Sir Keir Starmer will rise, and MPs will hold their breath in anticipation
For the first time in years, I am actually looking forward to Prime Minister’s Questions.
At noon on Wednesday, there will be a crackle of electricity in the House of Commons as Boris Johnson stands up at the Dispatch Box to answer for the Government’s decisions.
The Premier will look relaxed on the surface, but those who know him will probably sense the rapt focus of brain cells under pressure beneath that unruly blonde mop.
After a few moments, MPs will fall silent as the Speaker calls out for the Leader of the Opposition. Sir Keir Starmer will rise, and 649 MPs will hold their breath in anticipation.
This is only the third Question Time between Mr Johnson and Sir Keir – the battle between optimistic showman and prosecutorial lawyer – but Labour’s new leader won the first two hands down with a series of exquisitely delivered questions of surgical sharpness and devastating accuracy. The question this week is whether Labour’s new leader he can make it a hat trick, or whether the political skills of the Tory premier will turn the tables.
And never underestimate the Prime Minister, a politician whose mastery of the court of public opinion outclasses all his rivals. Sir Keir may find some awkward questions lobbed his way, too, such as whether Labour backs the reopening of schools or not.
Much depends on the outcome – far more is at stake than the egos of the two protagonists or the morale of their respective backbenchers.
Sir Keir’s two victories so far have already caused changes to the political landscape. First, they have made Mr Johnson, elected only six months ago with a landslide majority of 80, look distinctly vulnerable. Second, as a consequence of this, ministers are starting to become jumpy about the prospect of questions being asked ultimately by a judge in charge of an official inquiry into the handling of coronavirus. Thirdly, stemming from this, there has been an outbreak of backstabbing in the weekend papers, including anonymous fingerprinting at Health Secretary Matt Hancock that suggests colleagues are trying to line up a scapegoat.
Hilariously, the call has gone out to Conservative MPs to dash back to the House of Commons from pandemic isolation in their homes to give the PM moral support in a Chamber that was quiet as a graveyard during Sir Keir’s last two attacks.
Downing Street is fretting aloud about Parliament being unable to scrutinise legislation properly while MPs are keeping away due to coronavirus. Yes, this is the same No 10 team that suspended Parliament unlawfully last year to stop it passing legislation to outlaw a no-deal Brexit. However, the word has gone out that MPs should return en masse after next weeks’ Whitsun recess.
Another sign of the Starmer Effect is that policy announcements are being re-timed to provide distractions from Sir Keir’s persistent questions and prevent his success from dominating the headlines. In their first clash, the PM pre-announced that the long-awaited routemap from lockdown would take effect from the following Monday, resulting in total confusion when it turned out that in fact the return to work only began last Wednesday. In their second clash, the PM let slip that the Government was spending an extra £600 million on preventing infections in care home, an announcement that was reportedly supposed to have been saved for the following day.
So, how has Starmer achieved all this? And what tricks might the Prime Minister have up his sleeve.
Sir Keir’s understated technique is lightyears away from the Punch & Judy knockabout that earned the Commons a justified reputation as a brutal bearpit – while attracting global television audiences for its unique mix of arcane ceremony and brutal verbal combat. Instead he draws on his skills as a barrister to ask questions that force the Prime Minister to speak on the record about issues that minsters would prefer to glide over, such as the lack of protection for care homes that subsequently suffered appalling death rates.
Starmer exploits the silence of the near-empty chamber (only 50 MPs are currently allowed in because of pandemic restrictions) to deprive his quarry of emotional undergrowth to hide in. He eschews emotional questions, unlike Jeremy Corbyn whose efforts to decry the Tory leader as a moral disgrace never failed to rally and unite Conservative MPs. His questions are simple, depriving the PM of excuses to meander off topic.
But Johnson’s skills are not to be under-rated. He may have lost their first scrap in the chamber a fortnight ago, but he won the battle of the TV and newspaper headlines by giving a sneak preview of the routemap from lockdown.
A big daisycutter policy announcement in their third clash would blow Sir Keir out of the water. A launch date for the NHSX app, or the rollout of tracking and tracing, could reset the agenda and relegate Sir Keir to the sketch columns.
Do not be surprised if Tory backbenchers give the PM noisy backing. One of Mr Johnson’s habits when quizzed by Sir Keir was to look behind him, seeking friendly faces to rouse – faces that were missing on the socially-distanced green leather benches.
And Mr Johnson may choose this week to go on the attack. He might challenge Sir Keir to support the phased opening of primary schools in June, an issue that is a more pressing concern to many voters than the disinterring of mistakes made earlier in the pandemic.
Sir Keir’s supporters may laud his brilliance in a courtroom setting, but Mr Johnson has a genius for the arena.
Prime Ministers’ Questions is the ultimate gladiatorial circus. It has always mattered in British politics, both for the jousting of opponents across the Dispatch Box and for the subtle stilettos of the PM’s enemies behind him or her.
Over the decades I’ve had a ringside view of some of the great clashes of our times, Thatcher versus Kinnock (and Heseltine); Major against Blair, Brown against Cameron. But I have to confess that in recent months I have not always bothered to pay attention.
When Johnson and Starmer square up for their third meeting, however, I will be hanging on every word. At last, the Government is being properly held to account – and that will ultimately be good for the country, whoever claims victory when they sit down.