UK: the snapped verdict of this day’s PMQs

LONDON (Parliament Politics Magazine) – Last week, a shadow cabinet colleague allegedly criticised Keir Starmer for focusing too much on Partygate rather than the cost of living. Although the claim was most likely unfounded, the fact that it was made may have struck a nerve. Starmer made no mention of Partygate today, while another topic of great importance to Westminster (Raynergate) was only mentioned briefly. Instead, all of Starmer’s inquiries focused on the economy and the living cost.

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People will vote in local elections a week from tomorrow, and as a result, PMQs seemed even more like shouty party political broadcasts being played in tandem than usual. Boris Johnson appeared to be dependent on dog-eared and a random list of CCHQ talking points, regurgitated without much regard for the question, and one of Starmer’s better moments came when he criticised his method, quoting a sentence in the Mail on Sunday story about Angela Rayner.

That had to be the Oxford Union debating abilities they had heard so much about. Failure to respond to the question. Incoherent rambling he was throwing in some jumbled metaphors. Powerful stuff, Prime Minister, he said.

At PMQs, Starmer has always been brilliant at detail and debate, but he has just learned to scorn and insult as well, as he demonstrated today with a terrific drubbing. He referred to Johnson as the “Comical Ali of the Cost-of-Living Crisis.” Starmer compared the PM to an ostrich with his “head in the sand.” The MOT cost of living gimmick from the government was akin to John Major’s cones hotline.

With his peroration, here is how Starmer wound up.

So they were the party of oil and gas revenues, while we were the party of the working class.

Throughout the cost-of-living issue, this government’s head was buried in the sand. They started by allowing prices to spiral out of control. Then they denied that anything was going on. They were powerless to stop it. Then they added to the problem by raising taxes.

The country was on track to have the weakest growth and the greatest inflation in the G7 as a result of his decisions.

If you vote for Labour next week, you will be voting for a totally different set of options. They would  like oil and gas firms to contribute a fair share of lower energy costs. They  would not slap the worst possible tax on working people at the worst possible time. They’d  insulate houses to lower the bills. They’d  also put an end to the tax evasion techniques that had allowed his chancellor – where was he? – to lower his family’s tax bill while raising everyone else’s. That was a sound economic strategy. So why didn’t he just get on with it and make decisions that benefited working people rather than harm them?

Johnson was also ready for the last question. He was unconvincing on the specifics of the cost of living, but he turned to a last-ditch defence, the idea of which was that at least his government was doing something, unlike the “permanent spectator” Starmer, who offered no viable alternative. Opposition leaders were sometimes accused of accomplishing little (a consequence of not being in office), but Labour’s proposals were ambiguous or insubstantial in many areas, and Tory-leaning people would likely believe Johnson was correct on this point. Johnson stated that.

He had been listening to (Starmer) for weeks, if not years, and he could tell you that Stramer was bound to be a permanent spectator.

They had a strategy in place to fix the NHS and social care. The opposition didn’t have a strategy. With their agreement with Rwanda, they had a plan to fix their borders. They don’t have a strategy. We have a strategy in place to move our economy ahead. The opposition had no plan. 

Johnson ended up resurrecting the old Tory panic about Labour governments destroying the economy. The notion that “everywhere you look, a Labour administration is a bankrupt shambles” (as Johnson put it) is a smear that has had a powerful impact in British politics for most of the last century. Johnson went on to include a reference to a Labour council spending £27,000 on EU flags, suggesting the CCHQ list of Labour financial misfeasance is rather short. And the fact that Labour has only recently drawn level with the Tories in polling on economic management implies it still has some life in it.