Western Morning News

Opposition’s role must change for duration of Covid-19 crisis


WHAT’S the point of the Opposition in a dire global emergency, such as the fight against coronaviru­s?

That might have been a question Sir Keir Starmer asked himself yesterday, as he prepared to face Dominic Raab, standing in for Boris Johnson, at the first Prime Minister’s Questions since the coronaviru­s crisis began.

He clearly found himself rather undecided as to the answer. On most other issues in normal times the Opposition has one real aim at PMQs – land blows on the Prime Minister or his stand-in and begin to build, in the eyes of voters, an impression that if only you were in control everything would be so much better.

But it is hard to make that stick when most voters believe that the normal rules of political engagement do not really apply when thousands of people are dying in hospitals and care homes around the world and every government across the globe is trying to limit, in as much as is possible, the impact of Covid-19 on its citizens.

Criticisin­g the government’s policies and ascribing political motivation to their decisions makes sense in normal circumstan­ces. But it is hard to convince anyone that Conservati­ve ideology is what’s driving the government’s fight against coronaviru­s. So when Sir Keir made the accusation that “there’s a pattern emerging here” alleging the government was “slow to lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and slow to take up offers from British firms,” it was hard to know what he was trying to prove.

As Mr Raab told him – and as can be confirmed with a quick look back through the dizzying history of this crisis over just a few weeks – the government has taken pretty much every decision on the clear advice of scientists and medical experts.

As the Foreign Secretary said: “If Sir Keir thinks he knows better than they do, with the benefit of hindsight, then that’s his decision”. Of course it may yet emerge that a swifter implementa­tion of the lockdown could have prevented deaths, better stockpilin­g of PPE could have ensured a safer working environmen­t for NHS and other key workers and more testing should have come on-stream earlier. And lessons will surely have to be learned from this crisis, in Britain as they are all around the world.

But there is almost no room at the moment for the Labour Party, or indeed the Lib Dems, Greens or other parts of the opposition at Westminste­r, to perform their normal role. There is no need, either, for a formal coalition of government of national unity, but a truce ought to be called so that the public can see all shades of political opinion pulling in the same direction.

To be fair to Sir Keir, he would probably welcome such a laying down of arms. Unless he can marshall his own army of advisers, better equipped than those working for the government, to come up with a better plan to help us through this crisis, he has little to contribute at the moment, other than support for the government in its efforts.

There will be time, when this is over, for Sir Keir and his new cabinet to make its mark. In the meantime, we all have a war to fight.

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