WESTMINSTER (Labour Buzz) - In a PMQs marred by technical glitches, Keir Starmer focused on just two questions: the loss of criminal records and the revelation that his Home Secretary wanted to close the borders earlier.
The loss of criminal records
Starmer opened up with the accidental deletion of more than 400,000 criminal records. He asked Johnson if he knew how many had been lost and whether criminal investigations had been impacted.
Johnson began by claiming they didn’t yet know but were working round the clock to put the problem right.
However, this did not sit well with Starmer. This, he said, should have been the first question any Prime Minister should have asked when briefed on the incident. Ten days later, Johnson still hadn’t got his head around it.
He then proceeded to answer the question for him. Brandishing a letter from the National Police Chief’s Council, he said: “403,000 records from the police national computer may have been deleted.”
The letter makes it clear that many of these related to serious offenders and included records which were meant for indefinite retention. In other words, these belonged to the most serious offenders and not, as some had tried to make out, people who had been arrested and released without charge.
Had it been that, of course, there would have been questions about why the government was illegally holding the data of innocent people. As it was, this data loss has already had an impact on live investigations and refers to some of the most serious offenses possible.
“This is about criminals not being caught and victims not receiving justice,” he said.
Given that Johnson had failed to answer the first obvious question he should have asked at the briefing, Starmer wanted to know if he’d asked the second. When would it be put right?
Once again Johnson didn’t know. Somewhat lamely his final line of defence was that Starmer should be focusing more on his incompetent handling of the pandemic, rather than his incompetent handling of policing.
Starmer’s final two questions also focused on the Home Office. The day before Priti Patel had been shown in a Zoom meeting with Conservative supporters suggesting she had been in favour of closing the borders.
“On should we have closed our borders earlier the answer is yes. I was an advocate of closing them last March,” she said.
Starmer’s question was simple. With his own Home Secretary telling him to close borders, why had he refused?
This was an embarrassing moment for Johnson. This wasn’t a public statement from the Home Secretary, it wasn’t an out right attempt to undermine her boss. It was simply a comment made in a meeting which she didn’t intend to be in the public discourse. In other words, she had maintained the principle of collective responsibility and had taken flack for refusing to close the borders earlier.
As this tape shows, that’s exactly what she had wanted to do, but Johnson overruled her.
Anyone expecting an answer hasn’t been paying much attention. Like a broken record Johnson waffled on into the air. He claimed Starmer hadn’t demanded he close the border; he claimed that last year he wanted to keep free movement. He even rolled out his old Captain Hindsight gag in the desperate hope that this time someone will find it funny.
It was more of the usual from Boris Johnson and will have pleased nobody other than his most die hard supports. For Starmer, this was an opportunity to gain some ground on a traditional weak area for Labour, policing and law enforcement.
The tone of his messaging was interesting. He talked about questions ‘any Prime Minister’ should have asked of the briefing. It was an attempt to hit out at Johnson’s competence or lack thereof. This is what should be worrying for Johnson. Thanks to his bungling of just about everything which comes his way, Labour have been able to plant themselves on territory which the Tories used to think of as their own.
Any other business
With Starmer using all his questions on just two topics, there was plenty left for the other opposition leaders.
Before technical glitches cut him off Ian Blackford of the SNP hit out at those in the Conservative party who had been amongst the most eager cheerleaders of Donald Trump.
He brought up an attack from Theresa May who had criticised Johnson for failing in Britain’s responsibility to the international community by cutting back on legal aid.
Ed Davey, who for those who might have forgotten leads something called the Liberal Democrats, wanted to know when there would be a review of Britain’s response to the pandemic.
Johnson’s weak response was to say that the Prime Minister should maintain close ties with the US President whoever he or she is, and that there isn’t enough time for a review. He promised one would take place later on or, to put it another way, when it’s too late to correct the mistakes he’s making each and every day.
From Johnson’s perspective, it was groundhog day. He refused to engage in questions and gave responses which could have been recorded from months ago. It showed a Prime Minister reluctant to engage with the detail of the job and with no sense of responsibility for the mess his mistakes make.
(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)