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The Keir Starmer fake news video debacle shows the Tories are rattled – and are after cheap point-scoring

Conservative MPs with wiser heads than Nadine Dorries, Lucy Allan and Maria Caulfield are muttering privately that their party needs to take the Labour leader much more seriously

Andrew Grice
Thursday 14 May 2020 17:51 BST
Original Keir Starmer clip that was edited and shared by Tory MPs

We might have thought they had better things to do during the coronavirus crisis. Three Conservative MPs have made an embarrassing retreat after trying to damage Keir Starmer in a “fake news” row about his time as director of public prosecutions.

Nadine Dorries, who has just won a surprise promotion to minister of state for health by Boris Johnson, should certainly have had more pressing duties than to share a clip from an anonymous Twitter account known for frequently posting information on far-right topics and conspiracy theories. An edited video of Starmer speaking about grooming gangs removed the start of the interview, when he was asked for examples of the “wrong approach”, making him appear to justify a failure to believe child victims.

Dorries and backbenchers Lucy Allan and Maria Caulfield deleted their tweets and were given a slap on the wrist by Downing Street and Tory whips.

But the damage was done, and their silly stunt backfired. If they wanted to dent Starmer’s impressive start as Labour leader, they inadvertently made him look the grown-up in the Westminster playground, and the Tories appear rattled.

The middle of a deep crisis was not a good time to become opposition leader, rightly seen as the toughest job in politics. But Starmer has already chalked up four victories over Dominic Raab and Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions. His forensic approach and quick thinking on his feet is drawing blood against Johnson’s big picture approach and bluster.

No surprise, then, that the government intends to end the virtual parliament with most MPs zooming in from home. Allowing more MPs into the Commons chamber will ensure Starmer is greeted by a wall of noise during his weekly joust with Johnson, which can be off-putting.

Although the public normally rallies behind the government during a national emergency, Starmer has forced himself into the game by his “constructive opposition”. He often calls for measures before the government implements them, and then praises ministers for accepting Labour’s proposals. This annoys ministers, who grumble that he is agreeing with their coronavirus strategy without saying so, while still criticising them on some issues.

Starmer’s approach seems to be working. According to YouGov, he scores better than Johnson when people are asked whether they are doing well or badly. One-in-three people view Starmer as a prime minister-in-waiting. Only 9 per cent thought the same of Jeremy Corbyn at last December’s election. Since then, the proportion of people who say they would never consider voting Labour has dropped from 38 per cent to 28 per cent.

Tory MPs with wiser heads than Dorries, Allan and Caulfield are muttering privately that their party needs to take the Labour leader much more seriously. Some were needled by Starmer’s impressive broadcast to the nation on easing the lockdown. He looked too prime ministerial for their liking.

Ironically, it was Johnson himself who told Starmer in a letter after their clash on Wednesday over the advice given to care homes: “I have sought to build the maximum political consensus behind our response to coronavirus. I hope it remains your position to pursue that same consensus.”

For Johnson to claim the moral high ground, his MPs will have to cut out the playground politics.

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