Keir Starmer can’t pin down Boris Johnson on vaccine passports – or anything else

John Rentoul
·4-min read
<p>Boris Johnson: do not attempt to rugby-tackle this man</p> (PA)

Boris Johnson: do not attempt to rugby-tackle this man

(PA)

As long as they make vaccine passports dark blue, Conservative backbenchers might vote for them. There is a deeper truth in the sarcastic comment I heard this week: that the plan for “Covid-status certificates”, as ministers call them, cuts across the expected political divides.

The Labour Party, which has throughout the pandemic favoured earlier and tighter restrictions on people’s freedom, has come out against the idea of having to prove your Covid status to get into a pub or restaurant. Which means that there is the prospect of that blue moon of opposition politics: an issue that unites a significant number of MPs on the government side with the opposition parties.

These rare events usually involve a certain amount of ideological contortion. John Smith was such an EU supporter that, had he lived, the Labour government of 1997 might have joined the euro, and yet in 1993 he made common cause with Eurosceptic Tory rebels and nearly destroyed the Maastricht Treaty.

When Tony Blair became Labour leader, he succeeded in defeating John Major over his plan to raise VAT on gas and electricity bills. The government claimed that it was a “green” measure, which meant that Labour had to vote in favour of global warming, but as Major’s main motive was really to raise revenue Blair emerged unscathed.

Blair himself was defeated towards the end of his time as prime minister by the unlikely alliance of Shami Chakrabarti and David Davis, as Labour rebels and a Conservative Party that had rediscovered civil liberties voted down the plan for 90-day detention of terrorist suspects.

So here is Keir Starmer, aligning himself with the Tory awkward squad over another civil liberties controversy, in which many of the Tory Eurosceptics have rebranded themselves lockdown-sceptics. Labour needs to have the Scottish National Party on board as well to have a chance of wiping out Boris Johnson’s majority, but Ian Blackford, the SNP leader in the Commons, has obliged, on the grounds that English vaccine passports will affect travellers from Scotland.

However, I don’t think this will come to a vote. There are two reasons governments with large majorities are rarely defeated. One is that it is hard for an opposition to find issues on which it can work with a rebel faction in the governing party – one that is usually on the further end of the left-right spectrum. The other is that, if a government sees such an alliance forming, it can usually take evasive action.

Hence vaccine passports for anything other than international travel and large events (with which Labour agrees) are unlikely to get to the stage of needing legislation. Israel has a “green pass” for vaccinated people to carry on their smartphones, but they are rarely checked, and some observers say the real purpose of the scheme was to encourage young people to get the vaccines. Ministers here have already said that they will not be required for “months”, by which time I expect the caravan to have moved on.

Which illustrates one of the deeper problems Starmer faces in opposing a shapeshifter such as Johnson. Partisan Labour supporters make a mistake in urging their leader to show more anger in attacking what they see as a “hard right” prime minister, when floating voters see Johnson as a disorganised pragmatist. Put Brexit to one side – there was at one point majority support for that proposition – and Johnson is a centrist. He and Rishi Sunak have responded to the economic crisis of coronavirus as a Labour government would have done. We cannot even be sure that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, had they been elected in 2019, would have borrowed and spent much more.

This is an even bigger problem than it seems for Labour, because as Peter Mandelson said when he spoke to students at King’s College London, there is a difference between being “high spending from the right” and “high spending from the left”. He accepted that public opinion was prepared to support the government spending more to stimulate the economy, but this did not mean that Corbyn had won the argument: “I just think that a Labour hunger for the big state and big spending and big taxation will be viewed by the public as, ‘Oh God, here they go again, it’s the old Labour Party back, put them in charge and before you know where we are, you’ll have spending and taxes shooting through the roof, market chaos and rising interest rates, all the old miseries will come back.’”

Trying to portray Johnson and Sunak as Austerity Mark II, or “Cameron and Osborne: The Sequel”, is not going to work. Unpindownability is a priceless asset in politics. Blair had it for a long time; Cameron had it to start with. Now Johnson has it, despite having been one of the best known politicians in the country for two decades (he was first elected MP for Henley in 2001).

I don’t think that vaccine passports are an important issue in themselves, despite the media hoo-ha. The need for them will quickly fall away. But they illustrate one of the prime minister’s greatest strengths: his ability to avoid being pinned down.

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