Boris Johnson paid Sir Keir Starmer the compliment of taking him seriously, and was right to do so.
Starmer brings with him the solemnity of the court room. His objective is to have Boris Johnson declared guilty, and he will not mind if he has to wait four years before the British people bring in that verdict.
But he had fortunately corrected his error of last week when he put questions to Dominic Raab which were far too long.
This time, Starmer touched on the latest death figure, 29,427, and asked: “How on earth did it come to this?”
Johnson, sounding a bit defensive, took cover behind Professor David Spiegelhalter, who has warned that it is virtually impossible to make international comparisons.
Starmer held up one of the daily graphs from the Downing Street press conference, which makes international comparisons. He went on to ask why, on the last day of April, the number of tests carried out was so high, only for it to fall back at the start of May.
The answer, everyone knew, was that Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had promised to achieve 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. Here, it appeared, was a cross-examiner so unscrupulous that he would only ask questions to which the answer was already generally known, but to which it would be embarrassing for Johnson to give a candid reply.
“Yes he’s right that capacity exceeds demand,” the Prime Minister said, and proceeded to announce that there will be 200,000 tests a day by the end of this month.
Starmer was “glad” to hear of the new target, “but of course just having a target isn’t a strategy”.
Unkind words. Johnson offered no strategy – he did not wish to pre-empt whatever it is that he will say to the nation on Sunday. The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, told the Prime Minister that in future he must make statements to the House first.
Johnson said he will be coming to the House on Monday. So we need wait only five days before Starmer continues his cross-examination.
The Prime Minister was vigorous enough while on his feet, but even then was prevented from playing his natural game, which is to disrupt any line of questioning he finds tiresome by talking instead about something the audience will find more amusing, whereupon the inquisitor’s anger becomes part of the joke.
In repose, Johnson looked pale and tired, as well he might after all he has been through. He will certainly be contemplating how to disrupt this inquisitor.
Once the nation is recovering from the pandemic, and the Government has announced ambitious plans to rebuild the economy, one can expect the Prime Minister to suggest that the Leader of the Opposition is being ever so slightly negative.
But just now, the situation is still too serious to brush aside Starmer. Johnson was obliged to fight a defensive battle, on a field chosen by his opponent: something Jeremy Corbyn never achieved.