The email heading is “NEWS FROM LABOUR” followed by a one-line summary of what a member of the shadow cabinet says. On Thursday, for example, it was: “Nick Thomas-Symonds responds to quarantine measures for people returning from France and the Netherlands.” Thomas-Symonds, helpfully described as “Labour’s shadow home secretary” in the first line of the news release, supported the measures but made it sound as if he didn’t.
This was a typical message from Labour’s efficient and productive press office. We journalists get several of these a day and most of them follow the same pattern. “While we support evidence-based measures at the border,” Thomas-Symonds began, “it’s vital that the government has a joined-up strategy, and recognises the impact of this on travel-related businesses.”
In other words, yeah but no but yeah but. The government has failed to build an effective track, trace and isolate system, the shadow home secretary went on, leaving it “reliant on the blunt tool of 14-day quarantine”. It should publish the evidence that its decision was based on, and it should try to reduce the time needed to isolate, through “increased testing and” – we need a ringing declaration at the end – “other measures”.
With parliament in recess, email news releases and video clips on social or mainstream media are the main ways that the opposition holds the government to account. What is striking is how consistent they are, continuing the themes set by Keir Starmer in the House of Commons: support for the government’s response to the coronavirus, qualified by criticism for acting too slowly and for general incompetence.
It is pretty much the same approach to every issue. On the small boats crossing the Channel, Thomas-Symonds wrote a letter to Priti Patel accusing her of lacking compassion, but mostly calling her incompetent and ineffective.
On the grading of non-exams, Labour’s initial response was to demand that fees for appeals should be waived, and that “nothing should be ruled out”, including a “Scottish government style U-turn”. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, duly waived fees a few hours later.
By yesterday, once it had become clear that the Ofqual algorithm had indeed generated appalling cases of life-changing individual unfairness, Starmer put out a news release moving on from ruling nothing out to ruling a U-turn in, saying: “A return to teacher assessments is now the best option available.”
He may yet be rewarded with such a result, although the government is still hoping that accelerated free appeals will be enough to resolve the worst cases, but even if Williamson can hold the line, Labour has done enough to make the government again look incompetent and slow.
Incompetent and slow. It is opposition by numbers. No disagreement on the substance. Labour supported the cancellation of exams, which was bound to cause terrible problems, but the government has been incompetent and slow. Labour agrees with the policy of paying the French to police their coastline, but the government has been incompetent and slow. Labour agrees with quarantining arrivals from France, but the government has been incompetent and slow.
In everything, Boris Johnson is a blustering enthusiast who doesn’t know what day it is (and makes a joke of not knowing), while Keir Starmer is calm, focused and used to be a top legal person you know. The opposition’s strategy is to reinforce people’s preconceptions of the two leaders’ characters. It doesn’t matter if Starmer is seen as dull, and the prime minister’s attempts to mock him as a lawyer (“One brief one day, another brief the next day”) only do the opposition’s work for them.
It’s not enough for the activists who hung a banner on Starmer’s constituency office this week, reading, “65,000 dead – do something!” and sent the photographic evidence to Skwawkbox, the Corbyn-supporting website. But they represent a minority in the Labour Party and an even smaller minority among the wider electorate.
The spoonerism of the Labour leader’s name is Steer Calmer, and by the next election, that may be what the British people want to vote for.