It's not unusual for a Labour leader to attack the government over the NHS at Prime Minister's Questions. Neither is it a topic of low salience at the moment, given the size of the backlog. But it was nonetheless Sir Keir Starmer's subject choice today was curious because it was precisely what Boris Johnson wanted to talk about, rather than the things he is trying to move on from. It's 'health week' in the Downing Street grid, and apparently in Starmer's too.
To be fair to the Labour leader, he clearly hoped that his questions to Johnson would show health week up for being a bunch of gimmicky announcements that will do little to address the crisis the NHS is in at present. Currently, people are having to resort to crowdfunders in order to pay for private treatment while waiting an unacceptably long time for the NHS to get to them. To that end, Starmer included case studies of patients who'd done just that, and of a man who'd called an ambulance repeatedly for his mother, who then died while still waiting for one to turn up. These were moving and not uncommon. Starmer's line on it was that these people 'deserved better than a wanting and inadequate government utterly unable to improve our NHS'. He also pointed to the enormous backlog in maintenance of NHS buildings (which has got so serious that some are considered unsafe), as well as the long waits in A&E, and to the concerns in government about the delivery of the 48 'new hospitals'. And the opening attack was on the own goal scored by Culture Secretary and former health minister Nadine Dorries when as part of her diatribe against Jeremy Hunt for being disloyal to Johnson, she appeared to admit that the Conservatives had left Britain inadequately prepared for the pandemic.
All of those are serious points and ones that will reverberate all the way to the next election. But Starmer did not make these points well. Far from pointing out the Tories' own goals, he allowed them to score a few more. 'This line of criticism is satirical,' jeered Johnson, joking that Labour was attacking a hospital building programme when they were the 'authors of the PFI scheme' (they weren't, but never mind). He also laughed to the chamber that Starmer's 'line of attack is not working'. He told MPs more than they wanted to know about the 48 new hospitals (which also aren't new, but never mind that either), about the numbers of nurses the government is recruiting (which also won't resolve the workforce crisis) and then about the Conservatives' wider achievements.
Starmer is a keen footballer whose fellow players say takes the game very seriously without showing much flair. Today he chose not to go for the open goal of a Prime Minister with little authority left over his governing party. Either he did so because he was clumsy – or because he sees the benefit in not finishing Johnson off just yet.