Isabel Hardman

PMQs: Starmer lays traps with an eye to vaccine troubles

PMQs: Starmer lays traps with an eye to vaccine troubles
(Photo by Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament)
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Prime Minister's Questions didn't feel particularly high wattage today. Sir Keir Starmer seemed to be using his questions to lay the groundwork for a future showdown with Boris Johnson. He used his first three questions to ask whether the government had done the necessary logistical planning to ensure the smooth roll-out of the coronavirus vaccine, particularly in care homes. He wanted to know who the Prime Minister expected to receive the vaccine next week, when those people in the top priority groups could expect to be vaccinated, and whether the Prime Minister had put plans in place to ensure that the vaccine really can get to care homes, given the practical problems with transporting it at such a low temperature.

Johnson had clearly turned up hoping to turn the heat on Starmer for abstaining in last night's vote, but he had to stick to a more sober tone for these early questions, even telling Starmer he was 'entirely right to raise the issue of care homes and our ability to distribute this type of vaccine rapidly into care homes'. He admitted that 'there are logistical challenges to overcome' and said the government was working with the devolved administrations to ensure that the health service was able to distribute it quickly. Starmer clearly anticipates that this will not run as smoothly as ministers hope, so was laying down a marker today to which he may return in future weeks.

But Johnson did get his attack on the Labour leader in as the questions wore on. He used Starmer's decision to raise jobs and the looming redundancies in the retail sector as a chance to complain that 'he won't even support measures to open up the economy'. His opponent had prepared a line, too, retorting: 'When I abstain, I come to the House and explain. When the Prime Minister abstains, he runs away to Afghanistan and gives the taxpayer a £20,000 bill.' This was a reference to Johnson missing a crucial vote on Heathrow expansion in 2018 when he was Foreign Secretary. 

Johnson also decided to upgrade his 'Captain Hindsight' slogan about Starmer, telling the chamber that he was 'rapidly rising up the ranks' to become 'General Indecision'. Oddly, Starmer failed to make much of the fact that the Prime Minister last night suffered the biggest Tory rebellion since the general election. Perhaps he was too busy thinking of the future PMQs where he trots out some of the assurances that Johnson offered today.