Keir Starmer had only asked his first question at prime minister's questions – about last month's fiasco over exam grades – when Boris Johnson picked up his blunderbuss of bluster, scattering pellets of piffle in all directions. Instead of asking when the prime minister knew the algorithm to moderate grades would create problems, Starmer should be congratulating the pupils on their hard work and the grades they won after the government discarded it, according to Johnson.
“And today is a great day because the parents, pupils and teachers in this country are overwhelmingly proving him wrong and proving the doubters wrong, because they are going back to school in record numbers, in spite of all the gloom and dubitation that he tried to spread,” the prime minister said.
Starmer said Johnson was making it up as he went along, quoting unnamed Tory backbenchers who have been complaining to newspapers about the government’s numerous U-turns. The prime minister accused Starmer of being a serial flip-flopper who opposed Brexit but now remains silent on the subject.
"This is a leader of the opposition who supported an IRA-condoning politician who wanted to get out of Nato and now says absolutely nothing about it," he said of Starmer.
This remark involved a reference to Jeremy Corbyn, but Starmer interpreted it as a slur on his record as a former prosecutor who worked with the PSNI before entering politics.
"As director of public prosecutions, I prosecuted serious terrorists for five years, working with the intelligence and security forces and with the police in Northern Ireland. I ask the prime minister to have the decency to withdraw that comment," he said.
Johnson decided not to have that decency, but Starmer missed an opening by failing to mention the prime minister's elevation to the House of Lords of Claire Fox, who has refused to apologise for supporting the IRA and condoning the 1993 Warrington bombings, which killed schoolboys Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball.
“I don’t hold those views anymore because there is no war going on in Ireland anymore,” she said last year.
Johnson’s summer U-turns have had little impact on his government’s popularity, but they have left Conservative MPs anxious and increasingly reluctant to publicly defend unpopular policies that could be abandoned without warning.
For Starmer, they offer an opportunity to reinforce the government's image as an incompetent one and his own status as a plausible alternative. Johnson's performance in the House of Commons on Wednesday made the Labour leader's task just a little easier.