In Depth

Keir Starmer’s first PMQs: ‘the opposition is back’

New Labour leader wins praise for his ‘forensic’ questioning on coronavirus testing

New Labour leader Keir Starmer today took on Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in a historic first “virtual” Prime Minister’s Questions.

Both Starmer and Raab, who was deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, attended the House of Commons in person, with questions from MPs largely coming via Zoom as part of the newly launched “virtual parliament”.

Starmer’s first PMQs performance has garnered praise on Twitter, with Politics.co.uk editor Ian Dunt describing it as “polite but punishing”.

“It was impressive. And reassuring. Just when we really need it… there is finally an opposition leader who can do the job,” Dunt said.

The Guardian’s sketch writer John Crace added: “Keir Starmer absolutely nailing it in first PMQs. Right tone, right questions.”

Shortly after PMQs came to an end, “Leader of the Opposition” began trending on Twitter, with editor of The Jewish Chronicle Stephen Pollard tweeting: “Relief to have a serious Leader of the Opposition asking questions at #PMQs. 

“And with all respect to my journalistic colleagues, Starmer has asked more effective questions in 5 mins than the sum total of all the press conferences. That’s why Parliamentary scrutiny matters.”

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Ayesha Hazarika, editor of The Londoner diary in the Evening Standard and former Ed Miliband adviser, said it was a great first outing, with “focussed, forensic, intelligent questions”.

“He looked so comfortable, can clearly think on his feet & debate properly in an effective yet grown up, courteous manner. Vital that he landed some blows. What a change!!”, she added.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell also tweeted praise for Starmer’s performance, saying that the Labour leader “very effectively… exposed government’s real lack of understanding of the plight & fears of workers in the care sector”.

On coronavirus testing, Starmer said that with just eight days to go until the promised target of 100,000 tests a day was due to be achieved, only 18,000 were completed in the past 24 hours. 

Raab said: “I have to correct him. Our capacity is now 40,000 per day so I think that is an incredibly important milestone. And of course he’s right to say that in the final week that will require a big increase.”

However, Starmer hit back, replying: “I didn’t need correcting because I gave the figure for the actual tests a day. The first secretary says there’s capacity for 40,000 a day.

“That means that the day before yesterday 40,000 tests could have been carried out but only 18,000 tests were actually carried out. Why isn’t the government using all the tests available, every day?”

ConservativeHome founder and Downing Street social justice adviser Tim Montgomerie tweeted: “This is an impressive debut from [Keir Starmer]: probing, relevant but courteous. Her Majesty’s Opposition is back.”

Alastair Campbell, formerly Tony Blair’s press secretary, echoed this, adding: “Every question so far from [Keir Starmer] spot on. Right issues, right tone, right mix of empathy and detail, and right balance of support for government objectives but determination to hold them to account.”

BBC political broadcaster Andrew Neil said: “After today’s exchanges at PMQs it is clear that the United Kingdom now has a functioning, probing, measured, informed Official Opposition. The government will need to raise its game.”

Referencing Starmer and Raab’s legal backgrounds, the Financial Times’s legal commentator, David Allen Green, described the debate as “like watching a City solicitor trying to wing it against an experienced QC”, adding: “Which is, in fact, what it actually is.”

Patrick Maguire, political correspondent at the New Statesman, said Starmer was “more forensic/clinical” than his predecessor. 

“Also some flesh on the bones of ‘constructive’ opposition – which doesn’t equal toothless,” Maguire added.

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