Lloyd Evans

PMQs: Starmer lacked a forensic touch

PMQs: Starmer lacked a forensic touch
(Photo by Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament)
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It really is crunch time. The international game of Texas Hold’em is reaching its climax. The lesser players have folded. Only two high-rollers remain at the table. Beads of sweat are appearing on their brows. Each is feeling for a lucky charm discreetly held in a side-pocket, and each is scouring the other's eyes for signs of fear or uncertainty. The turn of a card will determine the outcome.

This is the position as Boris prepares for tonight’s summit feast with Ursula von der Leyen. At PMQs, he was confronted by Sir Keir Starmer who appeared via video-link from his Camden home.

Labour’s spin-team missed a golden opportunity here. They might have shown their leader as a charming, fatherly figure relaxing at his fireside between a bust of Attlee and a portrait of Emily Wilding Davison, with biographies of Barbara Castle, Nelson Mandela and David Blunkett on his shelves to affirm his commitment to diversity across the categories of gender, race, and disability. But the viewers were denied a chance to inspect Sir Keir’s political fetishes as revealed by his bookshelves. Instead, we got a shot of him sitting in an unfurnished white cube. He looked like a mastiff in a vet’s ante-room.

His absence from the house didn’t suit him at all. His delivery — usually more soporific than a cup of Calpol — was exceptionally rambling and over-laden with detail. And he chose the wrong line of attack. Sir Keir has spent the entire year dodging the topic of Brexit but today he decided to complain that the ‘oven-ready deal’ from 2019 hadn’t materialised. Months ago this might have worked. But with the talks entering their final hours, and with a deal on a knife-edge, he was unwise to carp about government failures. At least half the blame lies with the EU.

Boris mocked Sir Keir’s ‘Sphinx-like’ silence on Brexit up till this point. And he asked if Labour would support a Brexit deal or not. Sir Keir replied he would study the small print and vote ‘in the national interest’. Boris greeted this with a pantomime of startled discovery, like a proud dad rejoicing that his toddler has finally placed one plastic brick on another.

‘I’m delighted by the signalling I’m getting from Camden,’ he said, in mock surprise. ‘He would vote for the deal, given the choice. Did you get that impression, Mr Speaker?’

This caricature is very fruitful for Boris: Sir Keir as a champion procrastinator, a world-class exponent of hesitancy and caution, the dither-master. Today the PM was clearly improvising on this theme like a comic at an open mic spot developing new material. Twice he advised Sir Keir to ‘put a towel around his head’ as an aid to making a decision. The image is promising but incomplete and Boris has plenty of time to develop it into a decent gag.

What wrecked Sir Keir’s performance was the opening question from Sir Edward Leigh. The pink-faced knight asked Boris to stand firm during this evening’s talks. Boris’s reply, clearly scripted, took the form of an ultimatum. He said that the EU wants to control our fisheries and it seeks the right to punish us if we fail to comply with its future laws.

‘Those are not terms that any prime minister should accept,’ he said.

Pretty definitive. No U-turn can get him out of that one. Had Sir Keir been a great ‘forensic expert’, as his fans claim, he’d have scrapped his ready-made questions and cross-examined Boris on those two red-lines. He ignored them.