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Lloyd Evans

Keir Starmer needs to learn when to keep quiet at PMQs

Keir Starmer needs to learn when to keep quiet at PMQs
Kier Starmer at PMQs (photo: Parliamentlive.tv)
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It’s half-time in the Beergate versus Partygate contest. The current score, nil-nil, would suit both leaders perfectly.

The economy dominated PMQs. Unemployment, boasted Boris, has reached its lowest level since 1974. Great news. But inflation is at a peak last seen in 1982. Slow-footed Sir Keir didn’t mention that.

He pushed Labour’s pet-project, a windfall tax on the oil majors, which has been mishandled by ministers. Some flatly oppose it, others dither. Rishi Sunak won’t rule it out and Boris said today he was looking at ‘all measures.’ Why the wobble? Sir Keir predicted a U-turn and urged Boris to hurry up about it. The Tories have own-goaled this. If they bring it in, they’ll look weak. If they don’t, they’ll look mean. Game to Sir Keir. Unforced error.

And he’s getting help from Tory disloyalists like William Haig who says he can’t wait to see taxes going up. Lord Browne, BP’s former boss, also backs Labour’s tax-and-waste policy. Why are these rich grandees clamouring for more government spending? Do they pay more taxes each year than they are supposed to? Surely they wouldn’t call for extra taxes if they didn’t.

The day’s chief bombshell came at the end of Sir Keir’s six questions. His team of elves spend their working hours seeking out the worst instance of suffering they can find. Sir Keir then outlines the story in heart-breaking terms and lays the blame on the prime minister. The star of today’s Kleenex moment was a sick father on dialysis, married to an NHS midwife, who diligently takes his young daughter to school each day. Huge bills threaten the family’s peace of mind. The wife had worked extra shifts all winter but it wasn’t enough. And the suffering dad, called Phoenix, had skipped meals but still faced crippling bills. His yarn had been expertly polished by Sir Keir’s wordsmiths.

‘Phoenix feels he’s being priced out of existence,’ said Sir Keir. A killer line. ‘Priced out of existence’. Answer that, Boris.

But Sir Keir is an incorrigible attention-seeker and he ruined his attack by prattling on when he should have kept quiet. He talked about ‘the sharp end of the crisis,’ and added that ‘the decisions we make here matter.’ Why give Boris extra thinking time?

Boris pointed out that energy bills for dialysis are covered by the NHS. That cast doubt on Phoenix’s story and ensured that a crowd of hacks and fact-checkers will soon be bashing on his front door and yelling questions through his letter-box. Even worse, he was saddled with an embarrassing new label. Boris asked Sir Keir to ‘send me the details of the sad case.’

It’s hardly a morale-booster, is it? Being called a ‘sad case’ by the prime minister. And since Sir Keir revealed Phoenix’s surname as well, it’s likely that his school-age daughter will be targeted too.

Sir Keir knows he has to name the victims or the stunt doesn’t work. A name personalises a story. It makes the viewers clench their fists in fury while spitting bile at Boris. But is it ethical to exploit the sick in a Westminster power-grab? This may not end well.

Written byLloyd Evans

Lloyd Evans is The Spectator's sketch-writer and theatre critic

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