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PMQs: Keir Starmer blunts his own attack

PMQs: Keir Starmer blunts his own attack
(Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)
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Sir Keir Starmer had two lines of attack at Prime Minister's Questions, both of them strong in their own way. The problem was that it wasn’t entirely clear what held them together and by splitting his six questions between them, he weakened the force of both.

Starmer started by asking Boris Johnson about the Mirror front page, which claims the Prime Minister and his aides broke lockdown restrictions last year by holding a party in Downing Street. Johnson brushed off the allegations by arguing that people were more interested in what happens now rather than 12 months ago – though significantly he didn't deny that there had been a party. Starmer's theme here was that the Conservatives don't really believe in the rules they force on other people, and he pointed at the semi-masked Tory benches behind the Prime Minister to underline this.

The Labour leader then moved onto the ‘40 new hospitals programme’, citing concerns from the Treasury and Cabinet Office that the project was undeliverable. He joked that until recently, he thought he knew what a hospital was, but pointed to a leaked document which instructs people to describe refurbishments to existing hospital buildings as ‘new hospitals’.

It was interesting to watch how still the Chancellor sat on the green benches while these questions were being asked. Indeed, it's worth saying that most Conservative MPs privately regard the ‘40 new hospitals’ line as a silly joke.

Starmer has been building a case for a while that Boris Johnson is playing the electorate for fools (presumably the link between the two topics today, though he could have articulated this), and his questions on this hospital programme allowed him to accuse the Prime Minister of breaking his promises.

Johnson for his part denied that the programme has been given a ‘red flag’ over the concerns about its feasibility, and told the Chamber that Starmer ‘drivels on irrelevantly’. This wasn't true, and the hospitals programme now has much more salience as a result of the exchanges. But it’s unlikely that Starmer’s performance triggered panic in government. He still has work to do before he can manage that.