Sir Keir Starmer opened to an empty House. His debut as Leader of the Opposition must be nevertheless be counted a distinct success.
For Starmer is not a dramatist, his impact measured by the applause he wins from a live audience. He is a prosecutor, who works in a quiet and reasonable manner, though with an undertone of moral feeling, to build his case, to demolish the defence, and to win the eventual approval of a jury.
He looked more at ease than Dominic Raab, who as First Secretary of State was deputising for Boris Johnson. Raab appeared apprehensive, his manner that of a gifted schoolboy who fears his work will not be found satisfactory.
Starmer observed that yesterday, “40,000 tests could have been carried out, but only 18,000 tests were carried out,” and wondered why
Raab was unable or unwilling to explain the discrepancy, so Starmer did. He instanced a care worker in Leicester who has symptoms of the virus, but would have to get to the outskirts of Nottingham in order to be tested.
This journey, he pointed out, cannot be done by public transport, for fear of spreading the infection, and takes 45 minutes by car, to which not all care workers have access.
Jeremy Corbyn often strove, as Leader of the Opposition, to show he was more in touch than the Prime Minister with life as it is actually lived.
In order to do so, he liked to give a name to the care worker in Leicester – Marjorie, perhaps – and to add one or two harrowing details of her medical and economic predicament.
Marjorie, some of his less generous listeners began to think, might not be an entirely representative figure. Indeed, some of them were so cold-hearted as to wonder whether she actually existed.
Starmer’s more humdrum case was harder to brush aside, for it stands to reason that to get from Leicester to Nottingham for a test, if one is a low-paid care worker with the early symptoms of the virus and no car, might be so inconvenient that one would decide not to make the journey.
Understatement has its place in public life. “So it doesn’t look like that’s a good plan,” Starmer remarked after his Leicester example: again a sentiment with which it was hard to disagree.
He wondered how many NHS workers and how many social-care workers have now died of the virus.
Raab said in reply that 69 NHS staff have died, but it is harder to come up with a precise figure for care workers.
Starmer was “disappointed” not to get a figure for social-care workers: “I’ll ask the same question next week and hopefully we can have a better answer.”
Raab by now looked like a schoolboy who has been found not to have done his prep, and realises with a sinking heart that he will have to have got it done by the same time next week.
He was not bold enough to say it was unrealistic to suppose that figures for the care sector could be compiled as quickly as those for the NHS. Starmer had begun, in a quiet way, to assert his superiority, and to set the agenda.
This first hybrid sitting of the House of Commons worked remarkably smoothly from a technical point of view. Only Kevin Brennan, ringing in from Cardiff West, broke up during Welsh Questions, with which the day began, and the Welsh Secretary, Simon Hart, said he had “got the gist” of it, which was probably true.
But it cannot be said too often or too loudly that these changes must be temporary, entailing as they do a grave loss of the freedom to intervene at any moment, if only from a sedentary position, and of the ability to see how opinion is moving in the House.