WESTMINSTER (Labour Buzz) - It was a sombre and reflective PMQs dominated by the murder of Sarah Everard. Both men seemed to sense that it would be difficult to be seen to be scoring any political points from such a tragedy. That didn’t stop him from trying.
Round one: She was just walking home
Starmer’s questions were dominated by the reaction to Sarah Everard’s murder. Like the murder of Stephen Lawrence and Jamie Bulger, he said, this had to be a turning point.
“Sometimes a case is so shocking it demands change,” he said and called on the Prime Minister to join him in bringing about that change.
Johnson, in an equally sombre mood, agreed with Starmer. “That event has triggered a reaction which is wholly understandable. We in government are doing everything we can.”
Score: There were no real points to be scored here and neither man tried but you might have got the sense something bigger was coming down the line.
Round two: Bringing about change
The next four questions were all about addressing the ‘practical challenges’ the case presented.
“Many women and girls feel unsafe on our streets, particularly at night,” he said and called on Johnson to commit to supporting Labour’s proposed ‘specific new laws’ on street harassment and toughening the law on stalking.
Johnson agreed that new laws were needed and said he would work with anyone. However, he resisted being drawn into accepting Labour’s lead on the issue. He did, though, try to make a point by claiming the bill debated yesterday contained such measures and that Labour had not supported them.
Starmer shot back that he would come to this bill later but noted it had more content about protecting statues than women.
Score: Both leaders are like fighters circling each other. However, already we could see the stirrings of a punch upcoming towards the end.
Round 3: Support for victims
For now, though, the spirit of détente held. Starmer pointed to the startling stat that nine out of 10 women do not come forward. He called for more support to be given to victims. He talked about efforts he had made five years ago to introduce a victims bill and another one that is currently available.
These are ready to go now, he said, would the Prime Minister support them?
Johnson again was wary. He was, he said happy to look at new proposals and efforts were being made.
Score: We are now getting towards the nub of the matter. Starmer was quietly pointing out that the means to address these problems are already at the disposal of the Prime Minister and had been for years. However, the government had failed to follow through.
Round four: Lack of convictions
Things now started to spice up. ‘For ten years,” Starmer said, “The government had been promising a victims law. It’s been in the last three manifestos. We don’t need more consultations.” The conversations he and his Labour colleagues had been having were constructive, he agreed, but they were the same conversations they had been having for five years.
He then called on the government to do something about the shockingly low levels of convictions seen in rape cases. 1.5% of cases are prosecuted. It’s a shocking figure which, as we’ve reported elsewhere, has been going down in recent years.
He demanded to know what the Prime Minister will do about this now.
Johnson started going on the attack.
“One of the first things I said was that the prosecution rates in this country are a disgrace.” The government is, he said, investing in the CPS, speeding up the law and looking to give women the confidence their cases will be heard. He pointed to tougher penalties for men who commit these crimes and said it ‘would have been a good thing if the whole house had voted for tougher sentences’.
Once again, he was referring to yesterday’s bill which Labour eventually decided to vote against.
Starmer was having none of it. He pulled out his Director of Prosecutions card pointing out he had been putting criminals behind bars while Johnson was still dangling from zip wires.
Score: This looked like the first crack in the armour. The first person to make this political was probably going to lose. By attempting to misrepresent Labour’s position on the bill, Johnson effectively blinked first.
Round five: Tougher sentences
Starmer now came onto the issue of tougher sentences for rape. He read out three cases each of which attracted penalties of around seven years.
Johnson’s eyes lit up. Finally, he sensed the opportunity for some grandstanding.
“Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if there were bill doing exactly that?” he said, before calling on Starmer to reverse his opposition to the bill.
Score: Johnson thought this was his moment to strike. However, as the final question showed he had just teed himself up nicely.
Round six: Protecting statues
From the first question, it had felt obvious the session was building towards this moment. Starmer skillfully pointed out the obvious. The government’s police bill extends the maximum sentence for defacing a statue to ten years, longer than any of the cases he had mentioned.
This was the key to the session. Johnson could protest all he wanted, but this bill had more to say about protecting statues than protecting women.
This will be the key issue on which this issue will be judged. Very quietly and sensitively Starmer had pointed out the truth. For ten years, this government had done nothing to make women safer. However, the moment a statue of Churchill was threatened with a little paint, they had leapt into action. This is where their priorities lie.
Johnson huffed and puffed but the point was made. The speaker eventually had to step in and warn him that he was sure ‘no politician would misrepresent another’. Some might sense that was a snide reference to Johnson’s performance last week in which he misled parliament about how Labour had voted on nurse’s pay.
Score: A very neat knock out. It was a punch that you could see coming a mile off, but the Prime Minister still walked straight onto it.
Given wider events, this was a very unusual session. Both men seemed to understand that the usual combative approach would not be appropriate and both held back a little. However, Starmer largely achieved his aim of portraying Labour as the party with solutions and the Conservatives who committed to protecting statues rather than women.
(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)