It took 19 months but Keir Starmer thinks he’s finally got his measure of Boris Johnson.
Exactly three weeks after Johnson’s failed attempt to defend Owen Paterson, the task was to capitalize on both the recent Tory welfare rebellion and the bold CBI speech. And although the Prime Minister waved his hands like a goalkeeper on penalties, Starmer didn’t miss the open goal.
It may have taken 19 long months, but did Keir Starmer finally get Boris Johnson’s measure? Well, judging by the youngest Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Labor leader certainly thinks he did it. Starmer sounded more confident and relaxed than ever since taking over the weekly sparring session in April 2020.
After last week’s disastrous performance in front of empty Tory benches, Johnson couldn’t have done anything worse. Thanks to the hectic late-night news of Whips, there was less green space behind him (though the government benches were still far from overcrowded) and he came determined to maximize the wall of noise, which often serves as his card for getting out into PMQs.
But this time the noise wasn’t enough. Wednesday’s high noon competition is often decided by the confidence of each individual player as well as what they say, and Starmer exuded the confidence his troops had long hoped for.
His opener – the prime minister’s manifest guarantee that no one has to sell their house to pay for maintenance was now another broken promise, wasn’t it? – was short and sharp. After two non-answers, Johnson gave the game away with his answer: “I’ll make a third attempt to clear this up …”
Far from enlightening, he merely highlighted the catch on his guarantee: that people could “defer” paying care costs. That only indicated that the new plan would force the less affluent to sell their homes after their deaths.
Immediately after the PMQs, a # 10 spokeswoman refused to repeat the 2019 Manifesto Guarantee, instead explaining the details of the fine print. When it comes to care costs, a person’s home “doesn’t count as part of their property while they live in it and their spouse lives in it,” she said.
Crucially, Starmer also learned that ridicule is often the best weapon against the Prime Minister, and his teasing over that awkward CBI speech – “Are you all right, Prime Minister?” – has been delivered to the theater that is often in his Delivery was missing.
His memory of Tory’s discomfort (“who knows if he’ll make it to the next election”) was followed by a vigorous attempt to target not only Johnson but also his possible successor, Rishi Sunak. Calling the prime minister a diversionary dealer while the chancellor steals the pockets of the people with tax increases was part of a deliberate Labor strategy to bind the two together like ruthless mountaineers.
Not every blow landed. His “working class dementia tax” felt like a bite to be a successful soundbite. Johnson also clearly thinks that his counterattacks on “Captain Hindsight,” a man he claims was (falsely) against the Vaccine Taskforce and the Covid unblocking, still portray the Labor leader as boring “Remoaner” captures.
The difference now is that Labor’s (small) lead in the polls translates into broader public dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister. The last SavantaComRes poll was notable not only for Johnson’s lowest ratings among general voters, but also for the fact that his net favoritism among Tory voters fell 13 points from +48 to +35 in 2019.
With the cost of living crisis looming over the winter, the new IpsosMORI poll for Tory MPs is perhaps just as worrying that a clear majority of the public expects the economy to deteriorate in the next 12 months (54 percent) and only 28 percent think it will improve.
In his last reply to Starmer, the Prime Minister pointed to rising employment and rising wages. That may have sounded deaf, but it was enough for Michael Gove to wave triumphantly with his rolled-up order paper. When the PMQs ended, Priti patted Patel Johnson on the arm.
Within a few hours, he and his Interior Minister discussed the tragic news about migrants found dead while crossing a canal. Some Labor MPs were prepared for the Conservatives to try to exploit the tragedy as part of a culture war to portray their opponents as “soft” on immigration.
But while there are no easy answers to the problem of channel crossings (and neither does Labor seem to have them), when ministers attempt to politicize it, critics will point to Patel’s own repeated failures in their promises to resolve the problem, not to be observed.
The prime minister looks like he’s already fueling the debt game with France and the EU. But, as with the cost of living crisis, his own government’s record on immigration is a reminder that governments that have been in power too long often lose as much as the opposition win in elections.