WESTMINSTER (Labour Buzz) - Those who have been following the news recently could be forgiven for thinking Andy Burnham is the leader of the opposition as Starmer sat back and let him take the fight for Johnson. Today it was his turn to take up the baton and he did it in style.
Getting out of Tier 3
To start with, though, Starmer took something of a soft approach. His first question was, simple, straight to the point, and took the Prime Minister by surprise because it required knowledge of detail and was very difficult to avoid.
“How does an area which goes into tier 3 restrictions get out of them?” he asked.
Johnson stumbled like a pupil called on to answer a question in class when he hasn’t done the homework.
“The simplest way is to get the R number down to one or below,” he said. “I’m pleased to say some areas are having considerable effect.”
Starmer followed up by asking if the infection rate in a tier 3 area has not come down below one will it be possible to come out?
Johnson struggled to answer the question claiming it was just one of a number of measures before Starmer hit him with the real point.
“I’m confused by the answer,” he said. “If it’s not the R rate under one what is it?” Millions of people, he said, who were facing the prospect of Tier 3 restrictions and would face it in coming months wanted to know the answer.
He quoted the Chief Medical Officer who said on Friday that Tier 3 would not be enough on its own to get the rate below one. He also quoted Johnson himself who claimed there was only a chance that Tier 3 would get the number below one.
“Tier 3,” he said, “is the worst of all worlds. It brings economic harm without bringing the infection down. It’s the gateway to months of agony from which there is no clear exit.”
Johnson tried to point out that Tier 3 restrictions would only apply for 28 days after which they would review it. However, he couldn’t refute idea that it would be inconceivable for any region which had not brought the R rate below one would see restrictions relax.
With experts doubting the ability of Tier 3 restrictions to reduce the rate, the unpleasant reality is that many regions in the country are heading into winter facing the prospect of months of restrictions with no realistic end in sight.
The battle of Manchester
This brought Starmer to the point many people had been waiting for, Manchester.
“Thousands of people in Manchester will either be out of work or face significant pay cuts,” he warned, while the rate of their mortgages heating and electric would stay the same.
“Stop bargaining with people’s lives. Stop dividing communities and provide the support which is needed in Manchester,” he demanded.
Johnson responded by saying the Mayor was offered £60 million which is less per head than Liverpool and Lancaster. However, he failed to say why he had walked away from negotiations especially when, as Starmer quickly pointed out, he had bee happy to pay £7,000 per day to consultants for a track and trace system which didn’t work and “£43 million for a garden bridge which wasn’t built,” even so, he said, Johnson “can’t find £5 million for the people of Manchester.”
Johnson, he said, had ‘crossed a Rubicon’, not just for his refusal to support people but also for the ‘grubby take it or leave it’ approach he had taken with the negotiations.
“It’s corrosive for public trust to pit region against region, Mayor against Mayor, Council against council asking them to trade away their businesses and jobs. We need a one-nation approach. Replace the endless local battles with clear national criteria and proper support for jobs. Labour’s motion would do that why won’t he support it.”
Finally, we moved onto the issue of the circuit breaker. Data shows infections rising across all age groups and all regions. Tier 2 restrictions had been shown not work leading to the unpleasant scenario of Tier 2 leading to Tier 3 which in turn doesn’t end ‘because there is no confidence the numbers will come down.’
Only Cornwall, he said, had a lower rate of infection than Manchester when restrictions first came into force.
The country, he said, faced a stark choice. Carry on with the Prime Minister’s approach which would lead to ‘months and months of agony’ or go for a two to three-week circuit break as Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland had already done. With half-term starting this Friday, he warned, this could be the last opportunity to put an effective circuit break in place.
Johnson’s response was the usual mix of denial and hyperbole, but for the second time in succession, he did use the phrase ‘commonsensical’ which we can only conclude he is determined to get into daily use. If anyone knows what it means, answers on a postcard.
Any other business
There was also a significant development as Johnson went after Sadiq Khan claiming he had ‘bankrupted’ TFL.
It prompted the strongest possible reply. A source close to Khan said the Prime Minister had ‘lied to the house’.
"Covid-19 is the sole cause of TfL’s financial challenge but he wants to punish Londoners by increasing taxes, fares and the C-Charge.”
He pointed out that Khan had brought down the deficit handed down to Johnson by more than 70%, a figure which was not helped by the more than £900 million spent on vanity projects which never saw the light of day including the more than £40 million spent on Johnson’s garden bridge.
Battle for COVID 19
Overall, this was a battle for control of the COVID 19 strategy. Starmer was putting across the message that Tier 3 is a permanent state because you can’t get out of it. That’s why he asked if you can take an area out of Tier 3 with the R rate over the level of one. It would be permanent while a temporary circuit breaker would bring down the number below one, reset the clock and give the country a chance to get an effective test and trace system in place?
Johnson was attempting to frame Starmer as wanting to lock down the entire country with no end in sight and Starmer was attempting to do the same to Johnson.
His strategy rests on his bet that Tier 3 will not, eventually work. Johnson will be left with a stark choice. Either switch courses and follow Labour or plough on down the same never-ending rabbit hole.
(Written by Tom Cropper, Edited by Klaudia Fior)