Ineffectual Keir Starmer is under growing pressure as local elections approach: Tom Richmond

IN normal times, Boris Johnson would be on the political ropes as the UK’s death toll from Covid surpasses 126,000 amid the country’s deepest ever recession in peacetime.

He would also be bracing himself for catastrophic Tory losses in the forthcoming local elections as voters take the opportunity to deliver a ‘bloody nose’.

It has happened in the past at times of economic hardship, but Johnson is likely to be the beneficiary of a vaccine bounce.

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And this poses problems for Sir Keir Starmer as he, himself, prepares for his first electoral test since being elected Labour leader nearly a year ago. He’s not in good shape.

Sir Keir Starmer during Prime Minister's Questions this week.

Despite using virtually every PMQs or Parliamentary occasion to expose shortcomings over the Covid response, families remain sympathetic towards Johnson because the pandemic and lockdown is so unprecedented.

This explains why Starmer chose, oddly on the lockdown’s first anniversary, to focus his remarks at Prime Minister’s Questions on the defence review and view that Johnson had broken a pre-election pledge not to cut the Armed Forces. Starmer tried to make this an issue of trust before Johnson pointed out that half of the Labour front bench opposed the upgrading of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Left on the back foot, Starmer tried to put up a fight by criticising Johnson over defence, lamenting the one per cent pay rise for NHS staff and criticising the decision in this month’s Budget to raise family taxes.

Basically, it was opposition for opposition’s sake because Starmer’s inquisitions on Covid have been totally nullified by his past endorsement of the European Medicines Agency which is making such a mess of the EU’s vaccine rollout, and his continuing reluctance to accept Brexit.

Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves meet staff during a visit to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, to thank the NHS staff for their work as the country marks the one year anniversary of the first national lockdown.

And while the country is largely sympathetic towards NHS pay, Labour’s defining issue in these elections, voters also know Johnson has to wait until the Independent Pay Review Body reports back.

They’re also understanding of the country’s financial plight and would like to know, every time Starmer lists his complaints, the policies that he would scrap to pay for Labour’s commitments. He’s not done so.

As such, Johnson has a ready-made excuse – the pandemic – if the Tories struggle on polling day. Yet, if Labour fail to capitalise on a year of Covid, lockdowns and many questions about the PM’s trustworthiness, where will that leave Keir Starmer? In the fight of his political life in these abnormal times.

IF this week’s decision by John Lewis to close eight department stores does not force Chancellor Rishi Sunak to think again on business rates for the retail sector, what will?

Labour leader Keir Starmer joins paramedics at Deptford Ambulance station, south-east London, to observe a minute's silence in memory of the lives lost to COVID-19 during the National Day of Reflection on the anniversary of the first national lockdown.

He appeared nonplussed during a walkabout last June in Northallerton when Guy Barker, manager of the town’s Barkers store, was among those to make the case for reform.

That was then. Now John Lewis, so long the bellwether of the high street, says its once flagship Sheffield and York stores will not reopen when the lockdown is eased.

Hundreds of jobs are at risk and only last summer Sheffield Council spent £3.4m of public money on acquiring the John Lewis building in the city and leasing it back to the company on more competitive terms in order to reduce overheads.

That even this was insufficient to save the store is indicative of the extent to which online retail is undermining ‘‘bricks and mortar’’ sales from the time when the publication of John Lewis’s weekly trading figures every Friday was a defining barometer of the high street because of the chain’s reputation for unrivalled quality.

Now the key measurement is store closures – and these, I fear, will only increase unless the Chancellor takes radical action, like the imposition of an online sales tax with its proceeds used to help support high streets, before they become ghost towns.

THERE are reports that the Queen is considering appointing a diversity chief at Buckingham Palace in the wake of the racism claims made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Yet I hope Her Majesty seeks the counsel of her favourite bishop, John Sentamu, who struck up a great rapport with the Royals as a pioneering Archbishop of York.

After all, the new Lord Sentamu is the ‘‘outsider’’ whose experience has helped the Church, another ancient institution, to become more reflective of modern society. His mere presence in the Royal palaces, just chatting to courtiers about his life experiences, would yield more good than one headline appointment.

In the meantime, I await the apology from the Sussexes after their false claim that they were officially ‘‘married’’ in secret by the Archbishop of Canterbury days before their Windsor Castle ceremony. They were clearly mistaken, as the official marriage certificate now shows, and should say so.

FINALLY, a prime-time programme on BBC1 – yes, BBC1 – that provided 30 minutes of genuine laughter. It was an old episode of Fawlty Towers where the hapless hotelier calls in the builders with predictably disastrous consequences.

Still as funny now as it was 40 or so years ago when first broadcast, this wasn’t a laugh a minute – or a laugh every 10 minutes if you’re lucky with some so-called comedies. It was a laugh a second thanks to John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Connie Booth and the late Andrew Sachs.

Just why such brilliant writing – and acting – is now so rare is beyond me. I can only assume, given the creative talent in this country, that BBC ‘wokeism’ is the problem.

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