Since the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition first locked horns in early May, the pair have created a fractious and confrontational relationship. In the first few encounters, the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service utilised the barren benches behind the Prime Minister to turn PMQs into a moot court. At times Boris Johnson was left dithering, clenching his hair and pleading for his colleagues to jeer him on.
Starmer’s maiden confrontation with Boris Johnson was heralded on Twitter and by political journalists as a ‘forensic’ dissection of the Prime Minister. However, since then Boris Johnson, potentially assisted by his gradual return to good health, has held his own at the dispatch box. There does not appear to be any more moments where the Prime Minister is forced to scour the chamber, eyeballing his backbenchers, and imploring them to give him their vocal support.
Slowly but surely, the Prime Minister has managed to recuperate and adapt to counteract the Leader of the Opposition’s forensic, legalistic style. Last week was undoubtedly Johnson’s most impressive performance since the conclusion of Labour’s recent leadership race. Johnson, invoked with passion, unleashed hooks when Starmer was only able to posit a few jabs. When Johnson is on top-form: alert, prepared and not blustered, he bats away questions thrown by his chart-clutching opponent.
Today’s session was a goalless draw. The sort of fixture that usually appears right at the end of Match of the Day. Totally forgettable, even for the most diehard of supporters. The two men continued their ongoing argument over their correspondence on education. Starmer jumped to his feet in what one can only imagine is his version of rage when the Prime Minister claimed that the telephone call covered schools. However, he was still unable to exhibit enough passion capable of rousing the benches behind him.
Whatever has happened between the two London-based politicians, there is no love lost between the journalist and the lawyer. Johnson even postured that Starmer was conducting his questioning as a lawyer would. The Prime Minister said: ‘Last week he said classrooms weren’t safe enough to return to, this week he wants children back there quicker. Sir Flip-Flop, if you will. One brief one day, one brief the next, I understand how the legal profession works… but what the public want is consistency.’
Whilst neither man was able to convert their chances, one thing was cemented this week. The Johnson vs Starmer battles has more venom in them than other dispatch box clashes in the previous decade. The Leader of the Opposition will undoubtedly be buoyed by recent polling. YouGov found that, despite concerns over the parliamentary Labour Party, the former Shadow Brexit Secretary has demonstrated Prime Ministerial characteristics. Undoubtedly, these traits, alongside criticisms of the Conservatives coronavirus policy and the Cummings conundrum, have reduced the Tories lead to single-figures.
Nonetheless, Starmer will need to convert his chances. There are over 1,420 days until Britain decides its next leader. Plenty can change between now and then. The turbulence that Brexit brought to British politics is even more prevalent during this pandemic. This time last year, YouGov placed the Brexit Party as the most popular, with the Tories and Labour fighting it out in second and third. Starmer should also be worried. He is enjoying an extended honeymoon period because the pandemic has united his party against the government. But once this virus is abated the civil war within the Labour Party will re-emerge, and the ugly head of factional politics will come with it.
By J Walters