Great Britain

Keir Starmer: 'Boris Johnson has to get a grip and restore public confidence'

For the last two months, Keir Starmer has been cautious about criticising the government’s coronavirus response.

He has preferred to be forensic rather than furious, accepting that ministers have a difficult job.

But it appears that his patience has finally run out.

The calamitous events of the past week, from the Dominic Cummings affair to the mixed messages over the easing of the lockdown, has changed the mood of the new Labour leader. He has a tougher message now.

“I am putting the prime minister on notice that he has got to get a grip and restore public confidence in the government’s handling of the epidemic,” he says. “If we see a sharp rise in the R rate, the infection rate, or a swath of local lockdowns, responsibility for that falls squarely at the door of No 10. We all know the public have made huge sacrifices. This mismanagement of the last few weeks is the responsibility of the government.”

Speaking to the Guardian via video link from parliament, Starmer said it was essential to “put down a marker” that Johnson needs to sharpen up, after a difficult week for the prime minister’s administration. He stresses that Labour, along with the whole country, wants the government to “get this right”.

But he says there has been a loss in public trust. This has been caused in part by Cummings’ breach of the lockdown and Johnson’s decision to stand behind his senior aide without reprimand, which Starmer says has been damaging.

Add to that the mixed messaging over the lifting of the restrictions, a slow start to the contact tracing system and problems with daily testing figures and you have what Starmer describes as “an exit without a strategy”.

“My [worry] is that after a week or more of mismanagement, I’m deeply concerned the government has made a difficult situation 10 times worse ... There is a growing concern the government is now winging it,” he said. “At precisely the time when there should have been maximum trust in the government, confidence has collapsed.”

A major survey in the last week bears out that statement, showing trust in the government’s handling of the crisis has dropped and the gap in the polls between Labour and the Tories has narrowed – albeit four years out from another election.

In terms of what has caused that shift, Starmer is clear. 

“It’s the Cummings factor of course, the sense of one rule for them and one rule for everyone else. But it is ​also ​the mismanagement of the lifting of restrictions – an example of that would be the decision on Saturday to change the position for those that were shielding without any mention of that in the press conference or​ without any​ preparation for it.”  

The Labour leader is sceptical about the way Johnson announced his easing of the lockdown measures in the week of the Cummings crisis, when police said the aide may have breached the rules and dozens of Tory MPs agitated for his removal. 

“They obviously took a decision to try and deflect attention away from the Cummings affair. There are questions that the government needs to answer about the precise timing of the measures it put in place,” he says.

Through the Cummings controversy, Starmer has taken a measured approach, saying he would have given him the sack, but stopping just short of demanding that Johnson forces his adviser out.

But given Labour clearly believes the aide broke the rules in a way that has undermined public trust in the lockdown, why not simply call for him to go? Starmer’s answer is in line with his strategy of heaping responsibility on to the prime minister himself. 

“It’s blindingly obvious to me that the prime minister is just too weak to sack him,” he says. “I’ve laid out what I would have done as prime minister because of the impact on public trust and confidence. That’s the most troubling aspect of the whole Cummings affair. 

“We’ve all seen that loss of trust and confidence at precisely the wrong moment. If you had said which is the week the government needed maximum trust and confidence, the answer is the week in which you start easing restrictions … That’s where you need maximum trust and confidence. That’s the thing the government has burnt in the last few weeks.”

Having won his job as Labour leader just two weeks into the lockdown, Starmer made a deliberate choice that he would try to be as constructive as possible towards the government.

Some within his own party have wished for a less softly, softly approach, and more tub-thumping, anti-government rhetoric.

But his calculation has been that the country wants cooperation rather than criticism for its own sake during such a serious national crisis.

Starmer still believes that was the right strategy all along, even if it has not elicited much cooperation from the government in return, beyond an update meeting and a few phone calls. 

On the issue of schools, Starmer says he wrote to the prime minister two weeks ago in “a private and confidential letter offering to help try and move this forward in a way that would ensure consensus and confidence and I haven’t even had a reply”.

A toughening of his position has been inevitable, amid growing concerns among scientists, public health experts and others about Johnson’s handling of events and the surveys showing support for the government’s actions is increasingly being called into question. 

Now he is planning to ask for more meetings in person with Johnson, Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer.

He still will not say, however, exactly what he would have done differently in terms of the timing of lifting the lockdown, or criticise the decisions to reopen schools and shops at this point in the epidemic.

Part of the reason for this is that Labour does not have access to all the scientific advice that the government has received.

“The important thing is that the government is transparent about taking the decisions it has. That’s why we have constantly called on No 10 to publish the scientific advice so that we can see the basis on which it is taking decisions,” he says. In light of that, he says it is a “backward step” that No 10 is cutting back press conferences to weekdays only, rather than daily.

But Starmer also insists he wants to look to the future instead of past choices, suggesting it would be wrong at this stage to say the government has moved too fast on reopening society. “The problem is that the government has now done that and there’s no point putting the genie back in the bottle,” he says. “The question is how do we go forward now; it requires confidence building by the government, much more straightforward messaging.”

The coronavirus epidemic has been all-consuming for his first eight weeks in the job but there are still tricky party issues to resolve that will also require his attention.

The first is an Equalities and Human Rights Commission investigation into antisemitism within Labour, which former party leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested on Tuesday would be a product of the “part of the government machine”, casting doubt on its impartiality.

Starmer made clear he disagreed with this analysis, saying: “I fully respect the independence of the EHRC. I was a champion of the EHRC being set up. I’ve been clear that under my leadership the EHRC will cooperate fully with the commission and implement all the recommendations it put forward.”

The Labour leader will also have to deal with the continuing fallout of a leaked internal report into antisemitism, which angered those on the left of the party as it suggested some officials were working against Corbyn from within. Others were furious at the data breach caused by the leak. Starmer said he was determined that the independent inquiry he has ordered will report swiftly and “won’t be kicked into the long grass”.

“People will see it is independent and I’ve no interest in anything that is not independent,” he says.

Speaking from a big empty boardroom in the opposition leader’s parliamentary offices, with only a handful of Labour staff in the building and dozens of empty desks, Starmer has returned to vote in person in the House of Commons after weeks locked down in his north London constituency.

It was a challenge running the end of a leadership campaign and then taking on such a big job that required setting up new teams remotely during a pandemic, he says. But there has been a silver lining in terms of his family.

“I obviously started off running around the country trying to see as many people as possible and ended up doing an acceptance speech on my own in my living room,” he says. “Like everyone else, I’d love to get back to the stage where we will see each other physically; it’s had its challenges. But seeing more of my children has been one of the great advantages.”

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