Sir Keir was defeated by his own strategy at PMQs

20 May 2021

1:21 AM

20 May 2021

1:21 AM

The great thing about being trashed in the polls is that the tiniest improvement looks like a triumphant comeback. At PMQs the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, needed to do some minor damage to Boris’s armour. The teeniest dent could be spun as a glorious revival.

But Sir Keir was defeated by his own strategy. He attacked the government’s red-amber-green system of travel restrictions. This metaphorical tricolour is easy to interpret: amber-list countries are safe to travel to except when they’re dangerous. And amber-list countries are dangerous to travel to except when they’re safe. It’s the legal equivalent of an ‘amber shopping day,’ when thieves can operate with impunity.

Sir Kier mocked the absurdity of this kaleidoscopic travel advice. And Boris helped him. ‘It’s very, very clear,’ said the Prime Minister, ‘you should not be going to an amber-list country on holiday.’ Then came a proviso. ‘Except…’ he went on. And he listed the reasons that would make travel to an amber-list country permissible.

Obviously he wants to create such a muddled, incoherent and idiotic policy that everyone loses faith in it and starts to do what they like instead. The traffic-light system is a classic exercise in small-state libertarianism. It is, in a word, masterful.

The PM let the truth slip when he said that ‘legal bans’ were not the future. He added, ‘We’re trying to move away from endlessly legislating for everything.’

That may be his most significant statement of the year.

Sir Keir ducked one obvious controversy. A nurse, Jenny McGee, who cared for the PM while he fought the superbug last year, has resigned over low pay and a lack of respect for her profession. Newspapers report that she ‘kept vigil’ by the PM’s side. That now appears to be an understatement. Labour’s Andrew Slaughter claimed in the House that she ‘saved the Prime Minister’s life.’ This creates a wonderful tableau. Nurse McGee kneeling in prayer at Boris’s bedside while he languishes in intensive care. Nurse McGee mopping his brow as the fever rises in his lungs. Nurse McGee smoothing his blankets as he thrashes and twists in his delirious state. And later, when the danger passes, Nurse McGee serving him three hot meals a day and reading him excerpts from the Iliad to get him off to sleep at night.

And yet there’s a snag here. Why are Labour MPs championing a health worker who saved Boris from peril, prolonged his premiership, and guaranteed a collapse in their party’s support at the recent elections? Labour should lobby for Nurse McGee’s prosecution.

Acts of self-harm by the opposition are giving Boris an easy ride. He got more help from Ian Blackford of the SNP who tuned in via Zoom from his country estate. On his rear-wall hung an oil painting of a local hill-farm bursting with new-grown grass ready to be gobbled up frolicking lambs. His question, coincidentally, referred to the new trade deal that will open up Scottish farming to the vast Australian market. Blackford, however, is the kind of nationalist who would reject a million-pound lottery win because he can’t abide sterling. He saw danger in the new proposals. Livelihoods may be jeopardised, he warned, and ‘families will be driven off the land.’

Boris giggled. He thrust a finger at the bucolic portrait on Blackford’s wall and referred to him as ‘the humble representative of the crofting community.’ He made the point that Blackford has zero confidence in the Scots’ ability to prosper under new trading conditions.

Hywel Williams did the same disservice for Welsh farmers. He asked Boris to rule out a tariff-free trade deal with Australia.

This is astonishing. If Welsh and Scottish MPs think Aussie tucker beats their local produce they should keep quiet about it.

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