One theory of PMQs is that, when an opposition leader seems to be lined up for an obvious “win”, they come a cropper. It does not always work like that, but in some respects it did today. As a former head of the CPS, Sir Keir Stamer probably understands the importance of data from the Police National Computer better than anyone else in the Commons. But he made little headway in his four questions on the topic, and fared even less well with his final two, on Covid and borders.
On the plus side, Starmer arrived with clear, specific, detailed questions – normally the sort that work best at PMQs (and at press conferences too, for that matter). “How many criminal investigations could have been damaged by this mistake?” “How many convicted criminals have had their records wrongly deleted?” And Starmer’s best moment came when he responded to the slightly waffly first reply he got from Johnson.
That’s not an answer to my question. And it was the most basic of questions. It was the first question that any prime minister would have asked of those briefing him.
This was effective because it encapsulated one of the main concerns that people have about Johnson as prime minister, and one that is well grounded in reality; that is he not very good on detail.
But from that point on Starmer’s line of attack seemed to falter, and there are probably two reasons why. First, although Johnson may not have had answers to some of Starmer’s questions, he did have a reasonable response. “We don’t know how many cases might be frustrated as a result of what has happened,” Johnson said. Members of the public rightly get furious with politicians when they dodge questions, but people also recognise that ‘we don’t know’ can be an honest reply, and that’s what if felt like we were getting from Johnson.
The second problem with the Starmer strategy was a broader one. Opposition politicians, and the media, love to criticise governments over major administrative failings like this one, and it would be naive to pretend they don’t matter, but voters also recognise that cock-ups happen under all administrations, and that Priti Patel, and Johnson himself, weren’t personally to blame for what happened. Governments are vulnerable on policy decisions taken by ministers; on administrative bungling, by and large they are not.
Starmer used his final two questions to ask why Johnson did not do what Priti Patel was advising in March last year and close the borders. Perhaps border controls then might have made a difference. But Johnson could knock this back quite easily by saying that Labour weren’t calling for border closures at the time, and the fact that Starmer’s question was also the one Nigel Farage was championing this morning (see 11.44am) should perhaps have set some alarm bells ringing in LOTO as Starmer was drafting his script. Whatever the merits of this particular issue, being willing to over-rule Patel on policy is, in general, probably one of Johnson’s virtues not one of his flaws.