Boris Johnson quite comfortably had the best of that encounter. Being back in a crowded House of Commons helped (the Tory backbenchers were cheering quite a lot, and that always serves to buoy a minister at the dispatch box), but mostly it was because Johnson came across as someone still flabbergasted by how well his £12bn manifesto-busting tax increase seems to have landed. Sir Keir Starmer was better than he was in the chamber yesterday, but Labour’s response remains unfocused and unpersuasive.
Starmer started by raising an issue that had Sajid Javid rattled when it came up on the Today programme this morning: the failure of the plan announced yesterday to ensure that no one will have to sell their home to pay for social care. (See 10.22am.) It is a key topic because, until yesterday, about the only specific thing Johnson would say about his thinking on social care was that he wanted to stop people having to sell the family home and, as Starmer pointed out, the new plans will not achieve that for people who do not have a spare £86,000 to hand in cash, on top of the family home. So far, though, this drawback with the plan does not seem to have resonated widely with the media. Partly that’s because there are mechanisms available to ensure that, even if people have to sell the family home to pay for care, they do not necessarily have to move out of it while they are alive. And partly, perhaps, it is because people may have assumed (again) that Johnson’s promise was unrealistic in the first place.
Yesterday Starmer was criticising the Tories for no longer being the party of low tax. Given that Labour itself is not a low-tax party, this was problematic, and today he was focusing more on another dividing line: he criticised Johnson for penalising working people with his tax plans, saying Labour would tax those with the “broadest shoulders” instead. Given that the Resolution Foundation, a thinktank not hostile to Labour, says the national insurance increase is “progressive”, this argument is questionable, but it exposes a more fundamental weakness in Starmer’s position. He ended his exchanges by saying he was facing “the same old Tory party”, yet it is obvious that Johnson’s brand of Conservatism is not the same as the austerity model of 10 years ago. It was reminiscent of John Major’s doomed attempt to depict Tony Blair as an old-style socialist. In politics, as in all other forms of conflict, to beat the enemy, you need to understand them first.
It would also help to have a clearer alternative offer. Starmer probably does not need a fully-costed policy blueprint, but he does need something more than a vague intention to fund social care with higher taxes for the wealthy if he is going to convince voters that Labour is more credible on this issue. Johnson’s line about at least having a policy, unlike the opposition, clearly strikes a chord. And at the moment he seems to be beating Labour on health – a remarkable achievement for a Conservative PM.
Judging by the cheering, Tory MPs sounded more happy with their leader’s performance than Labour’s did. This is not always a good guide to who has done best, but PMQs matters almost as much for what it can do to a leader’s reputation with the parliamentary party as it does for their reputation with the public at large, and this afternoon the Conservative do seem to be in a much happier place.