If an alien spaceship beamed a person from 2015 to present-day Britain they wouldn’t believe their eyes.
Britain has left the European Union, Boris Johnson is Prime Minister, Keir Starmer is Labour leader and a deadly infectious disease known as coronavirus has taken the lives of more than 35,000 Britons, with the country having the second-highest death toll in the world.
Due to the unprecedented pandemic, the House of Commons has almost turned into a gladiatorial arena, with Johnson and Starmer going head to head at the despatch box whilst MPs appear over video link rather than in the chamber. Without the jeers from the hordes of backbenchers, there is no need for quips and jibes, limiting the effectiveness of Johnson’s often theatrical performances. Instead, in closer to a one-on-one showdown, we have seen the effectiveness of Starmer as a debater, from his years as a lawyer where he had to be a persuasive orator in the courtroom. These days, in the half-empty chamber, PMQs tends to resemble a legal deposition between prosecutor and suspect as opposed to Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.
Starmer doesn’t rant or shout witty one-liners. Instead, he asks factual questions designed to cut through the waffle like a knife through butter and expose the hypocrisies of his opponents’ argument. Parvais Jabbar, a lawyer who has worked with Mr Starmer on human rights cases in the past, supports the idea that the current, more direct PMQs plays into the Labour leader’s favour: ‘There’s no doubt that the current setup plays to his advantage…Keir is not a shouter or a screamer. He’s asking questions in an inquisitorial way, but he also examines the responses he receives’.
Outside of the Commons, Boris Johnson’s close adviser Dominic Cummings has been accused of violating the government’s lockdown measures, an accusation which he vehemently denies. The Daily Mail’s front page urged his dismissal and a minister within the government, Douglas Ross, has resigned over Cummings’ lockdown trip. After a news briefing in which Johnson defended his ally, stating that he ‘acted responsibly, legally and with integrity’, Keir Starmer released a brief Twitter video in which he stated that by protecting his adviser, ‘the Prime Minister has treated the British people with contempt…and has undermined his own rules’. The tweet has garnered over 110,000 likes in two days, and his calm appearance contrasted with Johnson’s tired demeanour at the press conference.
Perhaps Starmer’s best tactic is to simply observe and watch the government make unnecessary mistakes of their own making, such as in this recent fiasco, which has been plastered all over the newspapers and leading news bulletins. Certainly, Johnson and his advisers’ self-inflicted errors appear to be politically beneficial for Starmer. Steven Brust popularised the saying that ‘one man’s mistake is another man’s opportunity’, and these recent developments may be the reason why in recent polling he has a growing 24 point lead in approval rating over the Prime Minister.
Ultimately though, no matter how many times Starmer lands a punch at PMQs or releases a sharp Twitter video, Johnson will, it seems, remain prime minister for the foreseeable future. With a sizeable majority in the Commons, there is little Starmer can do in the short term to change the Labour Party’s fortunes. Yes, overall government approval has dropped 16 points and currently sits at a meagre -2% in a poll, but the idea that this automatically means ‘Boris Johnson is finished’ is short-sighted.
Harold Wilson coined the phrase that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, and the next scheduled general election is years away – a lot can change between now and then.