As Boris Johnson prepares to unveil a new three tier restrictions system, the PM and his ministers are already coming under fire from Tory MPs and local leaders for confusion and a lack of evidence-based decision making. But what of Keir Starmer? The Labour leader has amassed plenty of praise of late. With Labour and the Tories neck-and-neck in the polls, he is credited with making the party seem like a viable option following the Corbyn era.
Yet scratch the surface and there are plenty of Labour MPs privately questioning Starmer's opposition strategy — particularly on coronavirus. While Starmer originally said he would provide constructive opposition, the Labour leader has become more combative over the last week or so. With government failures mounting up — from testing shortages to missing results — this has been broadly welcomed. There is a desire for Starmer to be more confrontational. Yet for all the rhetoric, so far there has been little in terms of action.
Last week, Starmer raised the issue of the 10 p.m. curfew at Prime Minister's Questions. He asked Johnson whether he could provide any scientific evidence to back up the measure. Johnson struggled to do so. To those sitting in the Commons chamber, it was seen as a turning point. With a vote on maintaining the 10 p.m. curfew due this week, there was a chance that Labour could work with rebel Tory MPs to reject the measure. However, not long after the session, Starmer confirmed that his party would support maintaining it. A similar thing happened with the rule of six — a Labour shadow health minister criticised it at the despatch box and then Labour abstained anyway.
As the Times's Patrick Maguire and I discuss on the latest Coffee House Shots podcast, there is concern on the Labour benches the concern is that Starmer could develop a reputation for fence-sitting or failing to have a clear position. A taste of this came in last month's Gogglebox verdict on his Labour conference speech where the various sofa critics asked if he was even Labour. Meanwhile, the position has confused Tory backbenchers looking for support on coronavirus restriction opposition. 'What is Starmer playing at?' asks one Conservative MP, keen to change the government's approach. 'It's nonsensical. He complains about something and then supports it'.
The expectation is that Starmer's party will support the latest coronavirus clampdown when it comes to a vote on Tuesday. While Johnson is under the most pressure over his strategies, the Labour leader will also need to tread carefully. The fact that so many of the metro mayors in the areas with high coronavirus infection rates are Labour means Starmer must deliver a response in accordance with regional concerns. Any criticism of the government ought to be linked to a proper response if he is to avoid the wrath of his party.