New U.K. Labour Leader Starmer to Work With Johnson on Virus

Joe Mayes and Tim Ross

(Bloomberg) --

Britain’s opposition Labour Party elected Keir Starmer as leader, putting a moderate lawyer with an eye for detail in charge, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus comes under fire.

Starmer said he would “engage constructively” with Johnson’s Conservative Party where in the national interest to defeat the pandemic, but took aim at ministers for some of their handling of the crisis and criticized them for failing to explain why Britain lags behind other countries when it comes to testing for the virus.

“Let’s be honest, serious mistakes have been made,” Starmer wrote in an article for the Sunday Times. “It is vital that that trust is met with openness and transparency about those mistakes and the decisions that have been made.”

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Starmer, 57, takes over as leader of the U.K. opposition at a critical time for the country and for the prime minister. While Johnson’s approval ratings have jumped in recent weeks, the government has been criticized for being too slow to test people for the virus and for failing to equip health-care workers properly. If the public mood turns against Johnson over his management of the crisis, Starmer could quickly become a credible next occupant of 10 Downing Street.

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In addition to his comments on testing, Starmer took issue with the government’s failure to remove what he called “blockages in the system” regarding the delivery of protective equipment to front-line health-care workers.

He also urged Johnson to set up vaccination centers across the country, a plan that would, he wrote, make it easier to protect Britons once a vaccine is available. And he called on the government to set out how and when it plans to declare victory over the virus.

“We should know what that exit strategy is, when the restrictions might be lifted and what the plan is for economic recovery to protect those who have been hardest hit,” he wrote.

National Unity

There had been speculation he could enter a wartime-style government of national unity with Johnson. On Saturday, the premier wrote to all opposition leaders inviting them to a briefing he will hold with his top medical advisers to outline the efforts being made to defeat the coronavirus.

The two men spoke Saturday afternoon and Starmer accepted the offer to meet with Johnson next week, according to a statement from Starmer’s spokesperson.

“Whether we voted for this government or not, we all rely on it to get this right -- that’s why in the national interest the Labour Party will play its full part,” Starmer said in his victory statement before the Times article. “But we will test the arguments that are put forward. We will shine a torch on critical issues.”

Responding to the crisis is Starmer’s urgent task, but his long-term job is to win power for Labour after a decade in opposition. He needs to heal deep divisions within the party, which has been plagued by splits between the hard left and the more centrist supporters of former prime minister Tony Blair.

He won 56% of the vote to beat Rebecca Long-Bailey, an ally of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Lisa Nandy. Angela Rayner, Labour’s education spokeswoman, was elected as deputy leader.

Starmer has tried to cast himself as a unity candidate, and has promised to retain much of Corbyn’s program, including commitments to renationalize railroads and increase income tax on the top 5% of earners.

Mountain to Climb

He accepted the task facing Labour is huge as it seeks to regain support in the former industrial heartlands that Corbyn lost to Johnson last year. “We’ve got a mountain to climb,” he said. “Where that requires change, we will change. Where that requires us to rethink, we will rethink. Our mission has to be to restore trust in our party as a force for good and a force for change.”

The son of a toolmaker and a nurse, Starmer was named after Keir Hardie, the first leader of Britain’s Labour party. Before being elected to parliament in 2015, he worked as a barrister and served as Director of Public Prosecutions between 2008 and 2013.

(Updates with Starmer accepting Johnson’s offer of talks in sixth paragraph.)

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