PMQs Verdict: Starmer and Johnson Clash on Tax

Next week’s budget and rising council taxes were top of the agenda in a testy Prime Minister’s Questions.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic media briefing at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain February 22, 2021. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS

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LONDON (Labour Buzz) - Starmer and Johnson faced off ahead of next week’s budget which will go a long way towards deciding what the recovery from the pandemic might look like. It was a testy exchange and one which will not have done much to encourage Keir Starmer’s growing list of doubters.  

Round 1 Recovery plan

Starmer’s first question was on the recovery plan. The biggest risk, he said, was misinformation. However, meanwhile, people were claiming the statistics ‘appear to have been manipulated’ and questioning the assumptions of the roadmap set out by the Prime Minister on Monday. 

Does he agree that’s irresponsible? 

He was of course setting up a trap for Johnson as these statements had already been made by Tory MPs such as Mark Harper who had claimed the roadmap was based on dodgy assumptions. 

Johnson’s mumbling answer suggests he knew this all too well. The Prime Minister, Starmer said, ‘might want to have a word with them’.

Score: A solid point to Starmer. The Conservative party has always been a fan of misinformation, but in the age of COVID 19, it’s becoming deadly. 

Round two. Support for self-isolation

‘3 in 10 people who should be self-isolating aren’t doing so’

For his second question, Starmer moved to isolation poverty. Labour has called for £500 to be made available to everyone who needs it. He challenged Johnson to ‘just fix this’. 

Johnson, as usual, had nothing useful to add in reply. Those who are asked to self-isolate already have the payment and that the eligibility criteria are being extended. 

Score: Draw, no real solid punches landed. 

Round three: Help for the low paid  

Starmer came back with more on support for those self-isolating. The Chair of Test and Trace, he said, had warned people are scared to come forward for a COVID test because they can’t afford to isolate. The government’s biosecurity centre said unmet financial needs is one of the reasons why some areas are still seeing ‘stubbornly high infection rates. Why he asked, are people in the lowest-paid jobs still at the bottom of the priority list? 

Johnson responded by claiming that people on the lowest income had been top of the government’s support packages. This is not the case. The government has lavished billions in grants to major companies, and people who can afford to buy a house, but has left millions of others without any support. 

BJ: claims people on the lowest income who have been at the top of the government’s priorities. The data does not support this. Starmer summed up the difference neatly. 

“If you need £500 to self isolate you’re out of luck. If you’ve for the health secretary WhatsApp, you get a million-pound contract. 

Round four: Budget 

I won’t ask the Prime Minister to pre-empt what’s in the budget. If I want that I’ll read it in the Times.” Can he at least agree that now is not the time for tax rises?  

Johnson’s eyes visibly lit up, a bit like a batsman who had been thrown a nice juicy full toss. It is preposterous for him to talk about tax rises. He stood on a manifesto to put up taxes by the biggest amount in the history of this country. 

It is his Labour council in Camden that puts up taxes. “That is the way Labour behaves.” 

Point for Johnson: Johnson’s claim about Labour’s manifesto is at best misleading and not relevant considering the party has new leadership and we’re talking about an entirely different situation. However, Starmer should have seen this one coming. 

It’s difficult to make much headway talking about a budget that hasn’t happened and tax rises which have not yet been announced. In doing so he gave the Prime Minister an attempt to attack Labour’s record on tax, especially Starmer’s own council of Camden which has recently announced a tax rise. 

Score: A point for Johnson.

Round 5 Council Tax

Starmer kept going on tax and things got worse. 

“Councils up and down the country are being forced to decide now whether to put council tax up,” he said.

Councils, he added, have been starved of funding for a decade. Labour and Conservative councils are both in the same position. 

For example, the PM’s own council of Hillingdon is voting to increase tax by 4.8%. Does the Prime Minister think they are right to do that?  

Johnson came back strongly. Hillingdon, he said, has been running lower council taxes than Labour. The top ten highest council taxes in the country,” he said, are run by the Labour party and they are all putting their taxes up, except for Burnley which is in no overall control’.

He should look at his own Labour Mayor of London who is putting taxes up, compared to his predecessor Mayor of London cut council tax.  

This felt like a knockdown for Johnson. For the first time, Starmer looked genuinely lost for words. He came back with the fact that £15bn has been taken out of Council Budgets over the last ten years. The PM should stop blaming others. “This is the mayor who bought water canons which can’t be used, millions on a garden bridge that never got built.” 

Score: A point to Johnson. Starmer is right on the facts. The Conservatives have forced councils to put up council tax over the past ten years. As such they have ensured that ordinary people see their taxes go up while the rich see them cut. It’s a cynical approach to offload the responsibility of tax rises onto other people. 

Round six: Another PMQs with no answers 

“The truth is this,” Starmer concluded. “The government spent a decade weakening the foundations of our economy and our country. As a result, we have the highest death toll in Europe, the worst recession of any major economy, families are facing council tax rises and millions can’t afford to self-isolate and all the Prime Minister offers is a return to business as normal.” 

Next week’s budget, he said, is a “chance to choose a different path, to build a stronger future, to protect families and give key workers the pay rises they deserve, to back British businesses by supporting 100,000 new start-ups.”  

Johnson just shrugged. If he’ll only wait a week we’ll do far more than that ‘rather paltry agenda’,’ he sneered. 

Score: Draw

PMQs Verdict. An easy win for Johnson

It was a weak end to Starmer’s weakest session at Prime Minister’s Questions yet. He ignored key areas of vulnerability for the Prime Minister: the fact that his Health Secretary broke the law, problems with the quarantine system, and the looming debacle of the return to schools, with schools being given none of the support to fulfil the demands being placed on them. 

Instead, he focused on a budget that hasn’t happened and allowed the Prime Minister to attack him on tax. It was a dreary session and seemed to encapsulate the malaise which currently seems to have engulfed his leadership.  

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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