Is Keir Starmer failing to call out the government over coronavirus? | Katy Balls


As government critics pile on Boris Johnson and his team over their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s one figure who’s notably pulling their punches: Sir Keir Starmer.

Barring a major political upset, the shadow Brexit secretary is on course to be crowned Labour leader this weekend. His fellow MPs are already working on the assumption that he is: Labour politicians are working to curry favour while the Tories are preparing for a “forensic” Starmer-led opposition.

Yet when it comes to pressing the government on the issue of the day, Starmer has so far kept his counsel.

While he has made the odd intervention on issues relating to NHS staff and the government’s communications strategy, it’s Jeremy Hunt who has emerged as the government tormenter-in-chief. With his more combative style and repeated calls for mass testing, the annoyance within government caused by the former health secretary is palpable. In contrast, Starmer’s name rarely comes up in conversation when discussing the coronavirus outbreak. “He’s not really a factor in this,” says a government figure.

With the Tories recording their best polling ratings while in government since Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands war, the current set-up appears to be helping one party particularly. It hasn’t gone unnoticed within Labour. The absence of opposition in the debate to date led a number of the party’s MPs to go public last month with criticism that the length of the leadership contest had hampered the party’s response to the pandemic.

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Others think that Starmer could be doing more – contest or no contest. It’s not as though criticising the government would hurt him among Labour members. “There’s an opportunity here to present a radical alternative,” says one such MP. Even if Starmer didn’t wish to go hard on politicising life and death decisions, surely, they say, more could be done in holding the Treasury to account on the economic package? Some Jeremy Corbyn supporters have been quick to say some of the measures are a vindication of the 2019 Labour manifesto.

Allies of Starmer are quick to come to his defence. They argue that it would have been premature for him to take on too big a role before the result of the contest is even announced. For one, there has been a Corbyn opposition up until this point. Second, any big gestures could have come across as opportunistic and go against the public interest.

When Lisa Nandy went on the offensive on the Andrew Marr Show last month and described the government’s communications over coronavirus a “shambles”, she received a cool response in Labour circles. Lucy Powell took to social media to publicly call her out – warning against speculation and panic and pushing for a focus on probing and questioning.

The latter is what Starmer has been trying to do over the past few weeks. If he is elected Labour leader this Saturday, expect a step change from him in terms of visibility. But the tone won’t change drastically – his focus is on casting himself as a statesman-esque figure who can offer constructive criticism and even praise when deserved.

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There’s a view among supporters of Starmer that once in place there is still a limit to the role a Labour leader ought to play in this. The thinking: either the government handles the crisis well – in which case there is little they can do. Or it falls short – in which case it is going to have to own that regardless of what any opposition leader says or does.

The latter point worries some skittish Tory MPs, that the UK could become an outlier in fatalities and the economy struggle to recover. This is why some Conservatives are privately pushing for Starmer to be invited to certain meetings and brought into decisions. This way some portion of blame could be shared. Such an offer would be hard for Starmer to say no to – given his pitch is to cast himself as the adult of the situation. It could also lend him an early dose of credibility as a future prime minister.

While it’s unlikely to help calm internal critics, the sense in government is that Starmer is already proving himself a grownup and taking the sensible route – both for himself and the country. Coronavirus criticism carries risk for both sides. “Playing politics in a time of national emergency could backfire on him just as much as it could make life difficult for us,” says a government figure.

Starmer and his team view his leadership as a long-term project and are ready to play the long game on opposition politics rather than just focus on quick wins. It’s this that ought to worry No 10 the most. Even if the NHS avoids collapse, the lasting effects of coronavirus complicate both the party’s manifesto pledges and its Brexit strategy. As one pessimistic Tory MP puts it: “Coronavirus has blown up Boris Johnson’s plans for government, if Keir Starmer is patient he could really catch us out later on.”

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Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor





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