Starmer came out swinging from the start, flinging verbal haymakers and slashing strokes of sarcasm. But the best moment was when he pulled the pin out of a political hand grenade by challenging the 10pm rule – an issue where the PM faces defeat if Labour jumps ship to side with Tory rebels.
The Prime Minister adopted a lofty pose, that of a statesman untroubled by something so minor. They had “fixed the computer glitch” and hired extra staff to catch up. He could reassure the House, nay the whole country, that the “missing data points do not change in any way our assessment of the epidemiology”.
Starmer replied with a bucket of battery acid. “This isn't just a technical issue, it's a human issue, and the attempted reassurance by the Prime Minister just doesn't wash.”
He needled the PM again, saying: “£12 billion has been invested in the system and a basic Excel error brings it down. No wonder it's been described as intergalactic incompetence.”
Johnson glared back. “You can't have it both ways: you can’t call it a human error and a basic Excel error.” His voice suddenly mellowed, as if remembering he was supposed to be exuding calm and statesmanship, making soothing noises about data points and a local-regional approach.
Starmer stepped things up. “There's a pattern here - on care homes, protective equipment, exams, testing - the Prime Minister ignores the warning signs, hurtles towards a car crash, then looks in the rear mirror and says what's all that about? It's quite literally government in hindsight.” Geddit? The man dubbed “Captain Hindsight” attacks Government in hindsight .
Rather than argue over the data points, the Labour leader simply demanded: “It’s obvious that something's gone wrong here. So what's the prime minister to do about it?”
Johnson finally hit back. It was like that scene in The Krays film where Ronnie takes his hands out of his pockets to reveal shiny knuckledusters on each one. “Last night, Mr. Speaker, the Labour Party abstained on the Rule of Six! (This said in a tone of shocked incredulity) He can't even be bothered to get his own side to support them himself.”
It was a hefty slug but Starmer had a sarcy response ready: “For the Prime Minister's benefit, let me take this slowly for him,” he mocked as if addressing a village idiot. “We want track and trace to work; but the government is messing it up and its it's our duty to point it out."
Johnson piled in again on Starmer for “mysteriously” changing position on “something as fundamental as the Rule of Six”, demanding: “He cannot continue to have it both ways; does he support the Rule of Six? Yes or no?”
Starmer replied “Yes,” which was better than having no answer but broke the cardinal rule that Opposition leaders do not get lured into answering questions at PMQs. As Tory MPs grew noisy he added spikily: “If he actually listened to the question we might get on better.” Ooh, said MPs.
For those who yearn for the old Punch & Judy style of question time this was turning into a treat.
Starmer pointed out that infections were lower in Johnson’s own borough of Hillingdon (no restrictions) than in places like Kirklees (restrictions in place) and pleaded: “Local communities genuinely don't understand these differences. Can he please explain for them?” If the PM knew the answer, he did not bother trying to explain, which is exactly what the Labour leader hoped for.
“This is getting ridiculous,” said Starmer. Then he pulled out the 10pm hand grenade. “Next week, this House will vote on whether to approve the 10pm rule. The Prime Minister knows that there are deeply held views across the country. One question is now screaming out - is there a scientific basis for the 10pm rule?”
Boom. It was a superb question. Because as everyone in the House knows, there is no scientific basis for closing pubs at 10pm rather than, say, 10.15pm. Ten o’clock was a muddy political compromise between scientists calling for pub closures and the Treasury begging to save the hospitality sector. More significantly, Starmer had sent a clear signal that despite backing the 10pm curfew three weeks ago he was willing to wriggle out of it and inflict a major defeat on the Government.
Johnson was furious and hit back as hard as he could. “What kind of a signal does this send to the people of the country about the robustness of the Labour Party and their willingness to enforce the restrictions? That's not ‘new leadership’. That's no leadership.”
Despite the PM’s volley at the end, it was a clear victory for Starmer who made the weather and will now be free to claim credit for the inevitable ministerial retreat on the 10pm curfew.
And Boris Johnson knows, better than anyone, that voters don’t give a stuff if Starmer is a political opportunist or not. After all, the PM has been accused of exactly that throughout his rise to the top.