Keir Starmer Gives Boris Johnson – And The Country – A Clear Alternative

Quote of the day:

“If we follow the science and break the circuit – we can get this virus under control, if we don’t, we could sleep-walk into a long and bleak winter” – Keir Starmer

Paul Waugh 

When he appeared on the Andrew Marr Show on the eve of his ‘virtual’ party conference nine days ago, Boris Johnson defended his coronavirus strategy with this dismissive swipe at his critics: “We haven’t had any alternative suggestions. No one has come up with any better proposals that I’m aware of.“

Well, thanks to the bombshell Sage document dump of Monday night, we now know that’s an inverted pyramid of piffle. A fortnight before his Marr appearance, his own scientific advisers had indeed recommended a string of bold alternatives, and they were measures that made his piecemeal local lockdowns look both confused and inadequate.

Of course, Johnson’s jibe was aimed not at Sage but squarely at Keir Starmer. Yes, ‘Captain Hindsight’, the ‘flip-flopper’ on school reopening was also chopping and changing his line on supporting the government on Covid. His view of the “sniping, carping” Labour leader conjured up that infamous phrase used by actors about theatre critics: like eunuchs at an orgy, they just don’t get it.

Well, after Starmer’s live televised address (complete with ‘New Leadership’ lectern branding) produced that really big alternative of a three-week Covid “circuit breaker”, maybe the PM should be careful what he wished for. If Johnson couldn’t handle the concept of constructive criticism, he may find out that the destructive kind is even worse.

Now it’s true that Starmer has been monk-like in his adherence to his own gospel of constructive opposition. When I raised with his shadow cabinet minister Steve Reed last month the idea of Labour getting ahead of the government with its own plan for tougher restrictions, he replied: “Labour doesn’t want to add to the confusion by proposing alternative rules that people should or shouldn’t be following at this time. I don’t actually think we should be trying to ‘get ahead’ of the government, that’s playing politics.”

Well, the good folks of Channel 4’s Gogglebox had their own verdict on the limits of that approach. In a memorable rinsing of Starmer’s tactics, normally loyal Labour voters were seen watching him on Marr equivocating over his support for the PM’s policies, and then yelled: “But what would YOU do?!!” Sophie in Blackpool said surely he needed to stop being “Captain Hindsight” and start being “Bruce Foresight” (God, I love a bonkers pun).

Foresight will be Starmer’s new weapon if the PM is indeed forced into a circuit break in a few weeks’ time. If Johnson refuses to heed his call, and hospitalisations and deaths keep rising, the Labour leader will be in a stronger position to speculate that the world could have been different if only his plan had been followed. 

Of course, there is a live lab experiment going on in the sense that Scotland’s own circuit break has been started by Nicola Sturgeon (though on a much smaller scale). If that fails to make an impact, Johnson could well be the one crowing. So today’s announcement is not without risks.

Although Starmer’s move was undeniably a big moment in the politics of the pandemic in the UK, the way he has inched his way towards his current position mirrors the way he nudged Labour towards a second Brexit referendum. Johnson will be hoping that this shift too is as much of an historic mistake for Labour, and he’ll push hard that Starmer doesn’t care about jobs or the economy.

The Labour leader was stunningly vague about the costings of his proposal, apart from a generality that failure to act would cost more money in the long run. His team may argue that in fact many of Rishi Sunak’s own big policies have been unfunded spending commitments, paid by extra borrowing.

Yet with Johnson portrayed as a prisoner of Sunak’s opposition to further lockdown, Starmer gets to kill two birds with one stone with his new announcement. His call for full compensation for businesses closed down in the three-week period highlights the chancellor’s own Achilles heel in coming weeks: the final removal of furlough at the end of October.

At the same time, he is reminding the public that the PM seems to be putting wealth ahead of health. Only today, No.10 told us that the reason Sage’s advice was rejected was because it receives advice not just from scientists but from “economists” and “ultimately for ministers to make decisions”.

There are other political benefits for Starmer too. He’s seen to be the defender of independent scientific advice. He exploits Tory splits (those liberty loving backbenchers were on the march tonight in decent numbers) while offering his support in any vote on a circuit break. He papers over Labour divisions about local lockdowns by creating a unifying, “we’re all in it together” set of national rules. And he also rams home his message that test-and-trace has to stop being a national outsourced disaster zone and start being a locally-run success.

Given that the public have shown in polls they want tougher curbs (YouGov shows a big majority for the circuit break tonight), Starmer is also managing to punch way above the weight of his rump of a party (and don’t forget its numbers in parliament are pitifully low). His emphasis on keeping schools open also underscores that this crisis is not just about “lives and livelihoods” but that third leg of “life chances”.

Most importantly, politics is often about owning the future, and if this comes off Starmer can say he owned it even for a few weeks. Taking the lead of his mayors Sadiq Khan (first to call for mask wearing) and Andy Burnham (first to call for local control of test and trace), he’s also learning that being bold can pay dividends.

Johnson, by contrast, has lost his boldness in the eyes of many of the Blue Wall voters who backed him on Brexit. It was just before that Marr interview this month that the PM said the reason the virus was spiking was because “everybody got a bit, kind of complacent and blasé”. That’s the very charge now levelled at his door in his handling of the pandemic. And Starmer’s biggest alternative of all tonight has been to show the public he’s an alternative PM.