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Over the past 12 months, as the Covid fall-out spread through our body politic almost as insidiously as the virus spread through our actual bodies, there’s a curious phrase that has cropped up on both sides of the Atlantic: “an abundance of caution”. This odd formulation has been cited for everything from Donald Trump cancelling early rallies (no really) to UK authorities halting AstraZeneca jabs for under 30s. Only on Tuesday, the line was used by US regulators to justify their pause in the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Here in the UK, there’s been no pause in the rollout of what we might call the Boris Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a political inoculation and reputation-saving wonder drug that has turned round the battered popularity of both the PM and his party. Though it is the NHS that is delivering the real vaccines that lie behind this poll bounce, the public is more than happy to credit Johnson too.
An “abundance of caution” is what Keir Starmer has been associated with, by both allies and critics alike, in his approach to “constructive opposition” since he took over as Labour leader. But in his latest PMQs joust with Johnson, with all those Year-of-Keir pieces perhaps ringing in his ears, Starmer shrugged off the cautious mantle. As he unsheathed a rapier-like wit, in both senses of the word, he secured arguably his most impressive despatch box victory in months.
In my own review of Starmer’s first 12 months in the job, it was fellow lawyer Charlie Falconer who said he was learning that politics moved at a much faster pace than the law. “The quick decision on the basis of incomplete facts is not something he is used to,” is how the shadow attorney general neatly put it. On Greensill and lobbying, the facts are incomplete but that was precisely what powered the Labour leader’s monstering of the PM on Wednesday.
In a break with his usual practice, Starmer deployed mockery as much as scrutiny, ridiculing Johnson’s lame parries about Labour not backing the 2014 Lobbying Act and his links to lobbying-friendly Peter Mandelson. When Starmer pointed out that the man behind that inadequate legislation was, er, David Cameron, the PM looked like he’d stepped on a rake.
As for wider lobbying, Starmer even deployed a rare bit of Cockney mimicry, saying: “It is called the shoplifters’ defence—Everyone else is nicking stuff, so why can’t I?’ It never worked.” Johnson tried a thin smile, but it was as weak as his argument. After months of being attacked as an “Islington lawyer”, Starmer was finally, proudly owning his background as a defence barrister and chief prosecutor.
It worked so well, and he looked so relaxed, that for the first time he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying PMQs. If there had been a packed Commons, the cheers behind him would have roared. The joke about Line of Duty lacked comic timing, but he had weakened Johnson’s defences sufficiently to deliver the final punches on dodgy contracts, jobs for the boys, privileged access and “the return of Tory sleaze”.
The power of Starmer’s performance was also grounded in the way his party has worked as a coherent unit this week on lobbying affair. Yesterday, Rishi Sunak relied on a technicality to duck an urgent question, leaving him open to the charge of “running scared”. Today, in a neatly timed Opposition Day debate and vote, Anneliese Dodds had a nice line about the #AskRishi hashtag. “We’d love to ask Rishi, but we’d have to find him first,” she said. Again, ridicule replaced righteous indignation, which is too often the habit of any Opposition.
Sandwiched between the debate and PMQs was Carolyn Harris’ 10-minute rule bill to give NHS nurses a minimum 2.1% pay rise. Not a single Tory MP voted for the legislation, which is merely a device but gives Labour campaigners fresh ammo on the doorstep in the May elections. No money for nurses, lots of money for financier mates of Tories, that message will accompany lines that the Greensill affair puts thousands of steel jobs at risk in Hartlepool too.
Perhaps the Labour tour de force of the day, however, was Rachel Reeves’ performance opening the lobbying debate. A lesson in relentless but well crafted argument, she was merciless about Cameron’s “shabby, toe-curling” statement issued under the cover of mourning about Prince Philip. Destructive opposition, a sense that shadow ministers really do want to be in government, was back.
Most important of all, Reeves wove together a pattern of misconduct that ranged from the PM’s personal disregard of the ministerial code to his failure to uphold Nolan principles that were themselves born out of 1990s Tory sleaze. A government with enough time to meet bankers and ex-PMs on the make, but no time to meet the self-employed, or families of those bereaved by Covid.
Of course, Commons speeches don’t often change much. Yet Labour’s onslaught this week, plus its nimbleness in reacting to each day’s jaw-dropping development (the Bill Crothers working for Greensill and Whitehall at the same time being one), shows that even faced with a majority of 80-plus, Oppositions can inflict damage.
Starmer’s PMQs was so good that Reeves’ own speech felt like a complementary follow-up, rather than a rival prospectus to set tongues wagging about her own leadership potential. Strength in depth, something Labour backbenchers have longed for, is beginning to emerge.
And that pressure, with some Tory MPs very nervous about the lack of transparency, looks like it has worked in getting at least some form of parliamentary inquiry into the lobbying affair. John Penrose, Jackie Doyle-Price, Andrew Bowie all expressed unease. Public Administration Committee chair Will Wragg, who takes evidence from appointments watchdog Lord Pickles on Thursday, looks close to ordering a full inquiry. The Treasury select committee is launching its own inquiry too.
There’s still a chance that the dots won’t join, that there will be no smoking gun on Greensill to find ministers guilty of wrongdoing. But Labour is starting to make a case that there is a disconnect between how Britain is run and how the public are treated, that there is a direct line between a steelworker in Hartlepool heading for the dole and Tory politicians helping their own.
And if parliament takes its duties seriously, instead of the vogue for an abundance of caution, maybe just maybe, we could get an abundance of scrutiny.