09 May 2020
Starmer v Johnson
The first round.
By John Watson
“Well, how did it go?” That is the question everyone asks when a new car has been given a road test and it is the question which members of the Labour Party will be asking about the first appearance of their new leader Sir Kier Starmer at Prime Ministers questions. In some ways it was an odd occasion. The House of Commons was almost empty of members (they were all presumably listening in on Zoom or its Parliamentary equivalent) so there was none of the bear garden atmosphere which would normally form the background to such an event. It was more like a courtroom with a quietly spoken QC (and Starmer is of course a QC) examining a witness to try to get to the truth of his evidence. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t effective. When, after going through the numbers, he asked “How on earth has it come to this?” he asked the very question which bothers the public. And then came questioning, probing the care home figures, probing the government’s performance on testing, probing the position on protective equipment. The manner was perfectly polite but one certainly got the feeling that the questioner would spot the areas which were going wrong and would find out the reasons for it.
Of course Prime Minister’s questions is a two-way street, a sort of conversation between the government and the opposition and the testing nature of Starmer’s questions was acknowledged in the seriousness of Johnson’s replies. You will often hear question time scored to identify a “winner” but, perhaps because of the importance of the subject matter, the exchanges were framed in a way which would have made this inappropriate. It was the sound of a government being held to account in a perfectly constructive manner. It was the sound of an opposition doing its job.
Although Johnson and Starmer seem a reasonable match for each other there is a difference in approach which reflects a difference in temperament. Johnson works by grasping political ideas and making them his focus. The revival of the North of England, the centrepiece of his pitch at the election, was the sort of sweeping social project which he likes. He saw a big issue, he used his undoubted speaking skills to articulate it and to fire public enthusiasm and, pandemic permitting, he will hopefully put his considerable energies into dealing with it. It is the way Disraeli would have approached it. Starmer, however, is a more methodical man and one can imagine that his political achievements will come through tight Gladstonian analysis, through hard and painstaking work on the detail. One may not like the policies he comes up with but it will not be because they have not been properly thought through.
The difference is reflected in their speaking. Starmer is slightly more precise and Boris quicker with the imagery and gestures. It will be interesting to see how that develops because the trick of a good orator, and they are both that, is to pick up on atmosphere and audience response and to adjust one’s style accordingly. Over the next few months each of them will adjust to the other. Johnson will hone his technique for dealing with Starmer’s probing and Starmer will refine the way in which he carries out that probing accordingly.
It should be interesting to listen to but at the moment there is a broader point. It is a good thing that the two main parties should be led by politicians who are reasonably matched and who express themselves well. That should help the government to maintain focus despite its dangerously large majority but it should also enable the supporters of each party to take a pride in its leader. Perhaps it will even go some way to restoring the faith of the public in British politics.