We’ve all been very impressed, haven’t we, by Sir Keir Starmer’s performances at Prime Minister’s Questions? His calm, precise and forensic dismantling of Boris Johnson has drawn praise from all quarters. Quite right too. An effective Leader of the Opposition is vital to any democracy and at last, we seem to have one. An eminent QC with the courage to ask the tough questions and put our blustering PM on the rack.
There are, inevitably, some petty quibblers who aren’t quite so Starmerstruck. They feel that the hindsight-fuelled bullying of a man still recovering from a near-death experience, and the castigating of a government forced to face horrendous economic and societal problems, weren’t particularly courageous. They’d have liked Sir Keir to have shown a bit more courage last year to conquer and crush the anti-Semitism within his own party. They were disappointed at the way he meekly kept his head down, his nose clean and his job safe.
Still, let’s forgive and forget. Better late than never. He’s now holding the government to account quite brilliantly, setting the political agenda and building his case with a prosecutor’s skill and acuity.
That can only be good for the country but the question is, will it be good for Keir Starmer? I’m not so sure because he already finds himself in quite an awkward position. He has to keep holding the Government to account. If he doesn’t, then he’s failing in his duty as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. However, if he does, then all he’s doing is helping the government.
Look how he helped them this week. The Government was refusing to budge from visa surcharges levied on NHS and care workers arriving from overseas. At PMQs, Sir Keir railed against it and, just hours later, Boris saw the error of his ways and announced that the charge would be dropped. Sir Keir was delighted. He even took to Twitter to praise his opponent for doing so: ‘Boris Johnson is right to have u-turned,’ he said, ‘This is a victory for common sense and the right thing to do’.
And so it was. But it was Johnson who’ll be seen to have done ‘the right thing’ not Starmer. We all know how rare it is for politicians to admit their mistakes and change tack but when they do, it plays very well with the voters. So, ironically, Sir Keir has now strengthened the government’s position rather than weakened it.
And of course, two weeks ago at PMQs, he made the Prime Minister commit to 200,000 Covid tests a day by the end of the month. That’s a hell of a commitment and the Government will now have to honour it. If they do, they’ll look extremely efficient and all the glory will be theirs. So again, this places Starmer in an unenviable position. Does he want them to succeed? You’d hope so. Trouble is, he only gets to look good if they fail.
And will he ever look this good again? Judging by his most recent appearance at PMQs, possibly not. This week’d encounter was a very different one. Johnson’s health and strength had clearly improved and with it, his trademark confidence and articulacy. This time, he came off the ropes like Ali against Foreman, and landed some telling blows of his own.
In future contests, Boris and Starmer are likely to be a lot more evenly matched. Sir Keir’s victories will come in helping the government to change or improve their policies. He’ll help them keep their promises, he’ll help them up their game so, by definition, he’ll help them defeat him at the next General Election.
What will he have to offer the electorate if he’s already given all his best ideas away? If I can be forgiven one more sporting analogy, we always remember who scored the goals but we tend to forget who provided the assists. So although Sir Keir Starmer may prove to be a brilliant Leader of the Opposition, I do wonder if he’ll ever be anything more.