At Wednesday’s PMQs, an unusual thing happened. Boris Johnson flattened Sir Keir Starmer.
‘Would the Prime Minister be happy with his kids living on that?’ the Labour leader chided, as he attempted to get some leverage in the row over free school meal parcels.
‘They are an insult to the families who have received them,’ Boris replied. Then he added: ‘I am grateful, by the way, to Marcus Rashford, who highlighted the issue and is doing quite an effective job, by comparison with the right honourable and learned gentleman, of holding the Government to account for these issues.’
Goaded by Boris’s jibes about his lack of foresight, he attempted to shadow the Government, wait for the moment he realised it would announce a tightening of regulations, then rush out a press release calling for one himself
The jibe hit home. And it did so for a simple reason. It was true.
Until December, Starmer had been doing quite well. His removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn was a bold move that stunned the hard-Left.
His forensic approach at the Dispatch Box enabled him to pass the first hurdle facing any Leader of the Opposition – the Doorstep Test. If they closed their eyes, could the average voter picture him standing outside No 10?
And he’d managed to skilfully avoid the elephant trap created by Boris’s last-minute Brexit brinkmanship.
But then Covid’s second wave broke and the man dubbed Captain Hindsight suddenly found himself all at sea.
It’s unfortunate for Starmer that the pandemic coincided with his election, but it is the biggest peacetime crisis in modern British history and represents the prism through which he must currently be judged. And the reality is it has found him wanting.
One of the simplest ways to judge how Starmer has responded to Covid is to pose the following question: if he had been PM, how would the UK’s response have differed? The answer is that it would hardly have been any different at all.
The Government’s management of the Covid emergency can be broken down into three phases. Phase one is easily dispensed with. Starmer and Labour robustly ‘backed the science’ and the Government’s initial lockdown plan. Where there were differences, they centred on administration, such as issues with the testing regime.
If the vaccine rollout continues at its impressive pace, the failings of Test and Trace and the scotch egg rule may become a distant memory. At which point Captain Hindsight will find he is not waving at the British people, but drowning
The second phase, during which Boris tried to ease the nation back to some form of normality, saw Captain Hindsight begin to tack. At times Starmer posed as a lockdown sceptic. In mid-April he lambasted the Government for not having a clear strategy to end lockdown, and berated them over not reopening schools.
‘The longer the schools are closed, the bigger the gap between children who are getting pretty good home-schooling and those that aren’t,’ he said. But when pressed he refused to set out his own strategy.
Then, as fears of a second Covid grew, his stance shifted. He became critical of the tier system, deploying the line of attack that once a region rose a tier it could never escape again. Then, as cases surged, he attacked the Government for not introducing a ‘circuit-breaker’.
But as we now know, when Boris U-turned and introduced one himself, it had minimal lasting effect. The same happened with the Welsh fire-break. And crucially, although Starmer continued to ramp up the rhetoric, and proved prescient in his predictions Covid was again spiralling out of control, he continued to support the Government’s strategy in the division lobbies.
The third phase, the run-up to this month’s national lockdown, is much simpler to analyse. It’s the moment Starmer’s strategy fell apart.
Goaded by Boris’s jibes about his lack of foresight, he attempted to shadow the Government, wait for the moment he realised it would announce a tightening of regulations, then rush out a press release calling for one himself.
From the beginning it made him look opportunistic and shifty. And by the end it had made him look ridiculous as his party flipped – in the space of a day – from a demand that schools reopen to a demand they close.
Starmer’s supporters argue that freed from the constraints of opposition, he would have had the room to be more bold in presenting his own Covid strategy. But, as ever, that requires the deployment of hindsight.
In any case, it’s on politics, not the management of public health, that the Leader of the Opposition is judged. A metric by which he is again floundering.
One of the main criticisms levelled at Starmer is that nobody knows what he believes. The opposite is true. People know only too well what Labour’s leader believes in. He believes in everything.
He believes schools must open, no ifs, no buts. But he also believes they must be closed.
He believes tiers are the route out of the Covid crisis. But he believes circuit-breakers are too. And so is a full national lockdown.
He believes bold measures need to be taken. But he also believes a pandemic can be defeated by stopping house viewings. And that nurseries should be closed. Or that the option should be kept under review. But in the meantime he strongly believes they should be kept open.
To be fair, not all of Starmer’s political problems are directly of his own making. Not even the Government’s supporters would claim that this is an administration of all the talents. But Captain Hindsight’s shipmates have all the presence of the crew of the Mary Celeste.
Those who continue to question how Gavin Williamson is still in post as Education Secretary should ask themselves how many voters have even heard the name Kate Green, his Labour shadow. Or how long Labour is going to cling to the fiction that Rishi Sunak’s march to Downing Street will be upended by Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds.
It would have been hard for any leader to secure complete cut-through in the face of such an all-encompassing event as Covid. But trying to do so with a blunt scalpel was never going to be enough.
And the reality is Starmer’s natural caution – quite skilfully spun as a lawyerly mastery of detail – is in danger of making his leadership and his party founder.
To the extent the public even spare Labour’s leader a thought, they get him. They realise he is not Jeremy Corbyn. They do not entertain a fear their prospective Prime Minister will pop up one day with a wreath in one hand and a weeping terrorist’s widow in the other. But not being Jeremy Corbyn isn’t enough.
And the simple fact is that if Starmer really wants to define himself to the British people, he is going to have to stop attacking what the Government does one day then voting for it the next.
Yes, there is still a possibility that Boris may one day be fatally exposed by his own mismanagement of elements of the Covid crisis. In which case Starmer’s gamble on keeping his head down and running with the tide may pay off.
But a big part of the Labour leader’s strategy has rested on him using the pandemic to frame Government incompetence.
And if the vaccine rollout continues at its impressive pace, the failings of Test and Trace and the scotch egg rule may become a distant memory. At which point Captain Hindsight will find he is not waving at the British people, but drowning.