It wasn’t a knockout, but Keir Starmer had Boris on the ropes

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It’s not called the most difficult job in British politics for no reason.

Keir Starmer had to score in his contest with Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions. And he did — the Labour leader was excoriating. He channelled the views of many, many voters when he raised the examples of citizens who had denied themselves visiting time with dying relatives due to Covid rules, while the Prime Minister enjoyed a boozy party in his back garden with scores of colleagues.

Still, there can be no doubt that Starmer would have had a twinge of doubt. After all, his predecessors had been given similar opportunities to hammer in the coffin nails of prime ministers’ careers when they found themselves in difficulty, and had failed spectacularly. 

The obvious example is the Westland crisis in January 1986 when Labour supporters across the country started watching the key exchange between Neil Kinnock and Margaret Thatcher with hopes of an imminent change at the top of government, and ended by checking the Labour Party rule book to find out how to trigger a leadership contest.

That too was an “easy” open goal, but Kinnock fell into a trap of his own making: he talked for too long, asked too many questions and allowed the Prime Minister to choose which ones she cared to answer before sitting down. Just over a year later she led her party to a second landslide general election victory.

Set piece events in the House of Commons are like that. To the outside world they seem straightforward and uncomplicated. If someone’s been caught telling a porkie, the response should be obvious: call him out, force him to resign.

Inside the chamber it’s very different. It’s a deceptively small, intimate arena and it’s all too easy to be put off by the fact that the person you’re attacking is staring straight at you from only a few feet away. The first question of an opposition leader is key: if you get it right, the press will give you the thumbs up in their headlines. If you stumble or focus on the wrong point, your other five questions will be blunted or even wasted.

Starmer’s anger may have been contrived but it was effective enough. Perhaps I might offer just a couple of minor criticisms. 

First of all, there’s always a problem with beginning your contribution in fifth gear. More experienced politicians understand the need to start in a low gear, gently, imperceptibly stepping up a gear as you go, so that your climax will be well signposted and all the more effective for it. Instead, Starmer had to maintain his high-pitched outrage over the course of six questions. That’s a long time in the chamber.

Second, Starmer’s emphasis sounded peculiar, as if he had rehearsed his anger and perfected it until it was ready for exhibition: “Well, there we have it. After MONTHS of deceit and decCEPtion, the pathetic spectacle of a MAN who’s run out of road.” And so on.

And in his eagerness to give his own benches what they wanted at the earliest possible moment, Starmer used his first question to demand the Prime Minister’s resignation, when such a demand would surely have provided a more powerful peroration to his comments during his final question.

Once you’ve pressed that nuclear button, once you’ve expressed your anger and outrage at maximum volume (all the way up to 11, as Spinal Tap fans might say), you really don’t have anywhere else to go. Except, with five questions still to ask, there really was a long way still to go. Johnson may well have run out of road, but Starmer had too much of it ahead of him by the time he sat down after question number one.

But at the end of the session few could deny that he had done what most people expected of him. There was no letting off the hook, no beating around the bush and plenty of sailing close to the wind as far as unparliamentary language is concerned. In contrast, Johnson knew that his role in the face of such an onslaught was to evoke contrition, whether or not it was genuine.

Having acknowledged the expectation that he should give the Prime Minister both barrels, Starmer performed. But he gave the impression that that was all it was: a performance. This is a man who has had little cause to be angry in public at anyone, and he perhaps sounded as if he was trying it out to see what it felt like. 

No matter. It worked. He did his job. Now let’s see if the Prime Minister continues to do his.

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