It’s bizarre to see political enemies laying claim to the purest of motives when they’re fighting like dogs to extract political advantage from the week’s hottest issue. At PMQs were treated to the unseemly spectacle of party leaders using the appalling death of Sarah Everard for personal gain.
Sir Keir Starmer called it, ‘a tragedy so shocking it demands justice and change’. And he called on his opponent to ‘collectively rise to this moment.’
Boris was caught off-guard. Pre-session he’d crammed his head with stats about nurses’ pay and soaring vaccination rates. Suddenly had to talk about sexual violence. He scoured his mental archive for a useful fact or figure but his brain was bare. So he flannelled on about investing in the CPS and speeding up legal processes.
Sir Keir came back with details. He called for tougher rules on stalking and ‘a specific new law on street harassment’. Boris floundered again.
‘We are always happy to look at new proposals,’ he dithered. And he mentioned ‘tougher sanctions on stalkers,’ and ‘making the streets safer.’
Then he had a brainwave. A glorious beam of clarity broke through the enclosing fog. Last night, he recalled, the House had debated the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which included tougher measures for criminals. Bingo! He was saved. Even better, Sir Keir had voted against it. What a hypocrite. Asking for stiffer sentences today and voting against stiffer sentences yesterday.
But the mood had to be right. Not too aggressive. Not too blatant. In emollient tones, he referred to last night’s Bill and said that Labour’s support for it ‘would have been good.’
Sir Keir zapped back.
‘The Bill said a lot more about protecting statues than it did about women.’
Nice one. Direct hit. Sir Keir then cited a private members bill introduced by him five years ago. He asked Boris not only to accept the idea of a law for victims but to declare a timetable for enacting it. ‘Six months,’ offered Sir Keir, with icy generosity.
Boris was back to the blather. ‘As I said,’ he waffled, ‘I’m very happy to look at new proposals from all sides of the House on this issue. Sir Keir had more. Labour will publish a ten-point action plan in the next few days.
‘I don’t expect him to agree with all this. And I don’t care,’ he added loftily. Another shrewd ploy. Disclaiming political interest while asserting it with subtle force.
Finally, Sir Keir made an open bid to turn ending sexual violence into a Labour issue by inviting Boris to a conference featuring victims groups and senior opposition figures. He read out a list of faceless luminaries from the shadow cabinet who were ready to attend. This wasn’t a summit, of course, it was a cross-fire operation. Danger lay on both sides for Boris.
To accept would be an admission that he needs Labour help to formulate policy. To refuse would expose him to the charge that he has betrayed women and failed to ‘do ‘everything’ to strengthen their security.
To cover his tracks, as he declined the offer, he thanked Sir Keir for his ‘collegiate spirit.’
‘The way he’s reaching out across the chamber is entirely right in the circumstances.’
A scramble is underway to annex this issue. No party can endure the charge that it turns a blind eye to rape. But Sir Keir is much better at this than Boris, and his experience as a prosecutor gives him a qualification that no other MP can match. The PM needs to reclaim the ground he surrendered today.