As a barrister, I can tell you exactly why Keir Starmer keeps beating Boris Johnson at PMQs

Grahame Anderson@BarGrahame
Wednesday 03 June 2020 11:15
Celebrities

Since winning the Labour leadership election and taking his place at the despatch box, Keir Starmer has shown that he's a formidable opponent at Prime Minister's Questions.

Starting this crucial new role in the middle of a pandemic has been a difficult task, but he's already made Boris Johnson and his deputy Dominic Raab look out of their depth at the weekly Commons showdown.

This week was no different, with the long awaited return of PMQs following a two-week recess. There were plenty of topics to discuss: the easing of lockdown, the "rushed" introduction of track and trace, Dominic Cummings and the anti-racism protests we've seen across the US and in the UK.

Starmer once again made Johnson very uncomfortable, probing him on track and trace, the ludicrous new queueing system in the House of Commons and the lack of public trust in the government's coronavirus response.

So why is Starmer so good at PMQs?

Well it turns out he's been preparing for these encounters his whole career.

As a barrister, I can see that the techniques Starmer learned in Court are bearing fruit now in the Commons, to the point where even the PM's allies concede that Wednesday lunchtimes aren't a good time of the week for him.

Cross-examination is the best part of our job as barristers: done well and you float on air, but done badly and the Earth can’t swallow you quickly enough – not that you let it show.

The clients I act for – often victims of discrimination or people facing those serious accusations – want to see their abuser or accuser face a hard time in the box. But that is not actually the point: cross-examination is the opportunity to dissect and undermine the evidence supporting the other side’s case and to put your own to them.

Here are some techniques we use in Court which are proving just as effective in the Commons chamber when deployed by Keir Starmer...

Build and box

To cross-examine well, you must know exactly what you’re talking about so that, when the witness slips up, you can pounce. Starmer has done this from the start. Here's an example:

For his first question to Dominic Raab on 22 April, he signposted the topic:

"I want to start with testing".

Next he set out the facts as a straitjacket:

"Yesterday the figure for actual test was 18,000, and that was down from Monday when it was 19,000".

Then he showed the problem:

"The Health Secretary made a very important commitment to 100,000 tests a day".

And finally he landed the kicker:

"What does the First Secretary expect to happen in the next eight days to get us from 18,000 tests a day to 100,000 tests a day’"

Crucially, the listener knows the intended answer: “nothing” , because it was implicit in the build-up.

When Raab answered "our capacity for tests is now at 40,000 a day", Starmer was able to come back on that point, saying: "I did not need correcting, because I gave the figure for the actual tests a day’".

But then he went even further:

"It means that the day before yesterday 40,000 tests could have been carried out, but only 18,000 tests were actually carried out".

So we're at Opposition: 2 and Government: 0, at just 30 seconds into Starmer’s PMQs career.

Know what they’re going to say

The first thing you are taught at Bar school is that you must never be a hostage to fortune: only ask question you know the answer. Starmer has shown that he and his team are carefully analysing the government’s lines so as to know exactly what Johnson’s answer will be.

Take foreign comparisons: on 29 April, Starmer said: "We are possibly on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe" and contrasted that with Johnson’s crowing about “our apparent success”.

It was too early for foreign comparisons, said Raab. Starmer asked the same question of the PM a week later and got the same answer. Starmer’s came back, proof in hand: "The argument that international comparisons cannot be made, when the Government have for weeks been using slides such as the one I am holding to make international comparisons, really does not hold water."

He didn’t have the slides ready by chance…

One question at a time

Starmer’s questions never ask more than one thing at a time:

How on earth did it come to this?

What does the Prime Minister think was so special about 30 April that meant that testing that day was so high?

The questions leave no doubt of what is being asked and what the intended answer is: “Government balls up” or “so they could say they’d hit the target”.

A lesser cross-examiner might (rightly) attack the government with statistics but then let them off the hook with a nakedly political question: “will the government admit they’ve got this wrong?” Of course they won’t, and you’ve given them a chance to trot out their we’re-doing-well narrative.

Hoist by their own petard

In almost every question Starmer asks there is a direct quote from the PM, a minister or some governmental guidance. He then contrasts the statement with contrary facts and invites the government to contradict itself. Textbook.

A variation, and something Corbyn did relatively effectively, is to quote from others whose credibility the PM could hardly impugn – people on the front line or experts. It is close to impossible for the government to disagree so the PM is forced into waffling around the topic, thus demonstrating the lack of clear answer.

Bank concessions for later

It is obvious that Johnson does not enjoy PMQs against Starmer. Hansard hides the fact that he struggles to think on his feet. Contrast Johnson’s lack of articulacy with Starmer’s cool, steely tone.

Matt Hancock would be the first to regret Johnson’s apparently improvised efforts: pressed on the sliding test figures, Johnson snapped back that the "ambition, clearly, is to get up to 200,000 a day by the end of this month." Hancock’s heart must have dropped while Starmer’s leapt: "I am glad the prime minister has now said that the target now is 200,000 tests per day".

You can bet Starmer will be coming back to that.

So there are plenty of reasons why Starmer seems to be getting the better of Johnson at PMQs so far.

Of course, this is an unusual testing ground and there are dangers in drawing conclusions: Starmer is able, at the moment, to focus on a single crisis in which the public are anxious that the government be properly scrutinised. He is not yet facing the full Tory mob as social distancing is still being observed in parliament.

But he will stick to the techniques he learned as a jobbing barrister then leading QC. Johnson has, to date, proven himself wanting and that really is a huge hole in his defences.

Using his forensic legal mind, Starmer will be poised to exploit it.

Grahame Anderson is an e​mployment, sports and equalities barrister. Follow him on Twitter @GrahameAnders.

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