Starmer hits home with measured attacks on Tory pandemic record

London Letter: Reactions to Labour leader’s virtual town hall meetings will worry Tories

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has been grilled by members of the House of Commons' Liaison Committee after his adviser Dominic Cummings was found to have broken Covid-19 lockdown measures. Video: Reuters

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Saving Dominic Cummings has cost those around Boris Johnson dearly in terms of their reputations and personal dignity in the past week as senior cabinet ministers debased themselves by parroting publicly the impossible official line of defence.

While 45 Conservative MPs openly defied the prime minister, many more have knuckled under, sending mealy-mouthed messages to constituents outraged by Cummings’s flouting of lockdown rules.

At Thursday’s Downing Street press conference, Johnson tossed on to the smouldering bonfire the reputations of his chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance. At first the prime minister refused to allow them to answer questions about Cummings but, when Sam Coates of Sky News shamed them into a response, Whitty spluttered that they had no desire to “get pulled into politics”.

Starmer said Johnson’s handling of the Cummings affair had exposed him as weak

As joint architects of Britain’s strategy to combat the coronavirus, Whitty and Vallance are implicated as deeply as Johnson himself in its outcome, the highest rate of excess deaths in the world since the pandemic began. But as senior police officers joined behavioural scientists to warn that Cummings’s behaviour makes compliance with social distancing restrictions more difficult, the scientists might have been expected to rescue some dignity by speaking out.

It is hard to imagine Anthony Fauci, who is so diplomatic that he has retained the favour of every United States president since George HW Bush, remaining silent in such circumstances.

Weak Johnson

At a virtual town hall meeting in Doncaster on Thursday, Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson’s handling of the Cummings affair had exposed him as weak.

“A strong prime minister would have said to Dominic Cummings: look, you’re going to have to go because other people are less likely now to obey the rules because you haven’t really done it yourself,” he said.

“Almost everybody I’ve spoken to has put it to me in this way and this is why it is so strong. Most people have felt guilty about not doing something they should have done for a loved one ... I think this is why it’s hit home in a non-party-political way, because it’s human emotion here.

“People feel: I’ve really done something which has caused me and my family quite a lot of anguish. It may be only like going up to an older relative and going in and cleaning the house and cooking for them. Just simple things like that, that people are desperate to have done and haven’t done. But then they’ve sort of beaten themselves up for not having done it.”

It should have been worrying for the Conservatives as one voter after another described how they felt about the government’s handling of coronavirus

Starmer’s town hall was one of a series of “Call Keir” events where he invites questioners to tell him why they have not voted Labour in recent elections and what he has to do to win them back. The callers in Doncaster did not hold back in delivering home truths about what they thought of the party, its previous leader and Starmer’s own record on Brexit.

But if the event was bracing for Starmer, it should have been worrying for the Conservatives as one voter after another described how they felt about the government’s handling of coronavirus. Kelley Tennant described how it took her 11 hours to get through to the government’s helpline when she had the virus and how she and the nurse who lived next door were unable to get a test.

“I’ve always been Conservative and I did vote for Boris and I have voted Brexit. However, this pandemic has completely changed my mind. I don’t feel that I trust any of the Conservative Party now,” she said. 

“Boris has disappeared, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve not seen him for a good month. I don’t know where he is. And if you’d asked me if I was going to be on a phone call with you, I’d say no chance.”

Praise first

Starmer prefaced any criticism of the government with praise for what he thought they had done well and an acknowledgement of how challenging the crisis was. Andrew, a former policeman who described his situation as one of the self-employed who has fallen through the cracks of the government’s financial support measures, said he had voted Labour only once in his life but he was now open to persuasion.

“I just see Labour, and particularly you, now you’re in the leadership role, as uniting the party and actually speaking a lot of sense compared with what the Conservatives are doing. Like you, I think they’ve done a reasonable job even if there are things they could have done better in this crisis. However, what I see from you is a much more focused approach to the way you deal with things, and that encourages me to be thinking about my voting for Labour in the future,” he said.

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