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Thu, 2 July 2020

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Analysis: Keir Starmer fails to win over the jury as Boris Johnson plays the hostile witness at PMQs

Analysis: Keir Starmer fails to win over the jury as Boris Johnson plays the hostile witness at PMQs

Keir Starmer has failed recently to land the blows at PMQs he did in his first sessions opposite Boris Johnson (PA)

3 min read

There have now been seven sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions between Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer, and it seems we have a pretty good idea how the next four years will pan out: it won’t look pretty.

The Labour leader’s lawyerly style won plaudits in the first few rounds but the problem for him is the PM appears to have worked out how defendants on the stand deal with wily prosecutors, and that is to become a hostile witness.

Those opening salvos between the two men back in early May resembled a cross-examination, the former Director of Public Prosecutions leaning heavily on his background as a QC to forensically pick apart the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Johnson himself had looked a little under the weather, whether the lack of support in the chamber from Tory MPs, the lingering effects of his own brush with Covid-19, or the pressure of trying to coordinate the country’s response to the crisis was to blame nobody can say, but he seemed unlike his usually buoyant self from the despatch box.

Wind forward a few weeks and his energy seems somewhat, if not entirely, renewed and while their first couple of PMQs were clear wins for Starmer, he has failed to gain traction in June, despite continuously turning up to the chamber at 12pm on a Wednesday well-briefed, well-armed and well-prepared.

Part of it is the return to the theatrics of old, with more noise from the Conservative benches behind the PM bolstering his attacks.

The quiet solemnity of the almost empty chamber during the virtual Parliament days mirrored the hush of the courtroom where Starmer forged his reputation.

But it is also due to Johnson’s willingness to refuse to answer, deflect, or sometimes outright mock the man opposite him.

He appears to have worked out that while a witness in a real courtroom may have to face hours of questioning, and will be denied the chance to turn the tables and change topics by a judge, the Commons’ own adjudicator Sir Lindsay Hoyle has no such powers or inclination, and Starmer has just six attempts to hold his man to account.

So the PM has taken to using up the Leader of the Opposition’s time by asking questions of his own, and in the case of the last two sessions use statistics on child poverty to echo his point which appear to have no scholarly basis.

The second time came as a result of Starmer attempting to circle back to comments made the week before, but in the world of Westminster politics there is little capital to be earned by litigating the previous session, and in this case Johnson simply doubled down with another - seemingly unsubstantiated - stat.

If Starmer’s plan is to highlight where the PM has misled or obfuscated he will need a better method, as bringing up last week’s answers is never more than a wasted question, especially faced with a man well-versed in wriggling off the line.

And after weeks of jibes from Johnson about his legal background Starmer has leaned in to it, using “no more witnesses, I rest my case” as his final flourish.

It’s a time-honoured trick to wear your enemy’s jibes as a badge of honour and draw the sting from them, but in this case all the Labour leader has done is add more fuel to the prosecution’s case.

The PM’s reply, calling his foe “m’learned friend” highlights there is plenty more mileage left in this particular gambit, and the court looks to be in session all the way until 2024.

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