22/04/2020.. London, United Kingdom. First virtual PMQs and Ministerial statement on Coronavirus, with First Secretary of State Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP and the Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP. Picture by Jessica Taylor © UK Parliament
Parliamentary opposition is usually pretty easy. You criticise the other side. They are wrong, they haven’t gone far enough, they have made a U turn and so on. You have plenty of opportunities. There are the weekly Prime Ministers Questions, you can ask urgent questions, you can intervene in debates, you can be on television, you can table amendments.
But the “peace time” routines don’t quite work in a crisis and opposition parties and leaders have a tightrope to walk. No one wants to be accused of politicising a crisis. Yet politics has to go on.
And here is the dilemma for Labour and Keir Starmer.
There has been much attention on the two Johnson/Starmer PMQs we have seen so far. But these have come after a period of opposition spokespeople taking great care to appear constructive. In fact many interviews have started off with a statement to that effect.
The Commons goes into recess on 21 May. But before then we have significant sessions in the Chamber, including a debate on the Trade Bill, Treasury and Transport Questions and another Johnson/Starmer duel.
In the early stages of the crisis, approval ratings for Johnson and the Government were high. This was generally the case for governments and leaders elsewhere. Last week however the picture began to change. Starmer’s approval rating had overtaken Johnson’s for the first time and support for the government, while still relatively high, was declining.
So how does the opposition avoid being seen to be too political while making points critical of the government?
The first approach is the use of factual questions which lead into the area of competence. Of course everyone would agree that accuracy matters.
The second is a focus on “transparency”. Whenever transparency is questioned there is an implication of things being hidden. Of course everyone would agree that honesty matters.
The third is a focus on clarity. Whatever the government says, the call is for more clarity and less confusion. Of course everyone would agree that it matters that we understand what to do.
All three of these are particularly useful to an opposition. It is impossible to include every detail of every fact in an answer, and so you, the government, look incompetent. It is impossible to be transparent about everything, and so you look shifty. It is impossible to explain every single possible scenario without writing a 10,000 word dissertation. So you end up looking confused on detail.
The role of an official opposition is partly to be a government in waiting. You can’t do that without showing how you would be better. In current terms this means more competent, more honest and more clear. The aim is to become more trusted.
After a period of little direction during the leadership election, Labour in Parliament is showing some discipline in pursuing arguments around competency, truthfulness and clarity. It will be interesting to see if this continues.
Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University