One of the most cheering things about lockdown is that I have had the opportunity to watch PMQs. The chemistry and body language between Johnson and Starmer is instructive and couldn’t be more different. Johnson is bluster, prepared one liners, failure to answer any questions, playing fast and loose with the truth and swaggering like a latter day Flashman desperate for applause. But, like Archie Rice, he is dead behind the eyes. Starmer is lawyerly, dull, precise, forensic and occasionally lethal. Johnson supporters cheer that he has Starmer ‘for breakfast’ every time. It’s dinner they should be more concerned about.
Chicken Boy Cain, the mastermind of Number 10 communications (discuss), has made a calculation, no doubt with the help of savvy political strategist Isaac Levido, that the public care more about bread and circuses, than the laziness and lack of detail of the PM. Starmer’s director of comms, Ben Nunn has a very different approach. At this stage of the electoral cycle it is the mood music that matters more than policy. People forget that this is a Thatcher legacy. The main thrust of her election address was in ‘the right approach to the economy’ written by Chris Patten. It was wisely pretty thin on detail. Nunn needs to show clear blue water between the new management and Corbyn. And Johnson foolishly allows him to do his job. By stupidly and wrongly accusing Starmer of sitting on his hands over Salisbury (get used to seeing his Question Time clip) and rubbishing the ISC report as Islington anti Brexit Remoanerism, it is a gift which will keep on giving. And Starmer has another gift that keeps on giving, Jeremy Corbyn and his vile cheer leaders. Today Labour apologised and paid damages to those whistle blower staffers who called truth to power about anti semitism. And what does Corbyn do? Issues a statement to say how disappointed he is with the apology. That it was political rather then legal. The Prosecco corks will be popping in the shadow cabinet.
The election is a long way off. Very few people watch PMQs. But backbenchers do. They are beginning to wonder how much longer can the bully boy tactics, the lying, the mind blowing incompetence and the juvenile disinformation can Johnson get away with? The answer is it can be priced in for a while yet.
But Tory backbenchers are just beginning to flex their muscles. They panicked the government over HUEWEI. They forced a U turn on the immigration treatment of health workers. And there will be a flotilla of issues in the pipeline. I would be amazed if the government was foolish enough to have a vote on whether to kick Julian Lewis off the ISC. Taking away the whip for not supporting the Prime Minister’s candidate for the chair was petulance dressed up as strength. He will get it back quietly over the summer. But it was deeply troubling to hear James Brokenshire sidestep a question by Lewis to give an undertaking that the ISC would not be politicised. Over the years backbenchers will be asked to die in a good many ditches. I can’t see too many of them laying down their lives for Chris Grayling.
So Starmer is playing a long and dangerous game. He is detoxifying the brand simply by being the brand. His mood music is a simple question, choose between a clown and a ringmaster. By the seat of the pants back-of fag-pack government or one of steady competence.
A lot can happen in four years. We could be living the dream of Brexit. Or not. The virus could be a long forgotten memory. Or not. Time will tell. So Number 10 has got to come up with a strategy that neutralises Johnson’s weaknesses. Trying to paint Starmer as some terrible old lefty is as daft as portraying Blair with red demon eyes. A good start would be to treat backbenchers and ministers as grown ups rather than lobby fodder. To have minister’s appointed for their competence not just for their supine obedience. This is meant to be a government not Crufts.
By the time the election comes round the Tories would have been in power for fourteen years. By then the mood music will be ‘time for a change’. It’s time for Downing Street to write some catchy tunes