Keir Starmer: 'If forensic is the worst anyone can throw at me, I'll take that. I suspect there's a lot worse to come'

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said he does not expect all who follow his party to have the same view, as he recognised his contrasting style to Boris Johnson and brushed off the PM’s despatch box jibes.

In an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Post, Sir Keir reiterated his promise to unite his party, and said he hoped the public had gained more from the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions sessions without MPs jeering from the backbenches.

He brushed off the PM’s mocking jibe at his "brilliant forensic mind" during the final PMQs before parliamentary recess - a piece of praise usually levelled at the Labour leader by supporters - when Mr Johnson accused him of not understanding the Government’s coronavirus planned.

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He said: “I've had a lot of things thrown at me over the years.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during PMQs. Photo: PA

“If being ‘forensic’ is the worst anyone's going to say that I'll take that, and I suspect there's a lot worse to come. So I can certainly live with that.”

But he acknowledged he and the Prime Minister clearly had different styles.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “And it is a very unusual environment because normally PMQs is absolutely rammed, there's lots of shouting and behaviour that wouldn't be tolerated in any other environment.

“I often say to my kids, if their class behaved like MPs do at PMQs they’d be in detention for God knows how long.”

When asked whether this clash of styles, combined with the House of Commons being empty or only partially full due to the pandemic, made it easier for the public to engage with the debate, he said: “It's allowed people to focus on the questions and the answers that are actually given in a way that doesn't usually happen.

“So people are listening and saying ‘what is he actually being asked here? And what answers has he given?’

“And lots of people have said to me they prefer it. Not many people like one side just shouting the other, the other side shouting back, actually that puts people off.

“So I think most of the people that have contacted me have said they think this is a better way of doing it than the way before.”

He added: “Now whether it survives the crisis we'll have to see, but certainly at the moment, I think people are enjoying the fact that the questions are being asked, and I hope - and obviously others will judge this - that it's the question that they want asked that is being asked and the thing that's on their mind, perhaps about care homes, perhaps about testing.”

When Jeremy Corbyn announced he would stand down as leader of the party after the disastrous December 2019 election, any potential successor could not have imagined the political environment they would find themselves in four months later when they took up their post.

It has meant Sir Keir has had to take a collaborative approach with the Government, while also taking centre stage for the party, potentially to the detriment of some of his shadow cabinet who have not yet had the opportunity to push their brief.

“Every day we’ve got a Labour voice out speaking on behalf of the Labour Party,” he said.

“So Jon Ashworth has been out very regularly, I think people recognise him. Rachel Reeves has been out regularly. Lisa Nandy, Angela Rayner, Nick Thomas-Symonds, so there have been regular voices out there.”

But he said: “I think because the coronavirus frames everything, and that's where the debate has been, there's just been less space for police, prisons.

“Education of course has been [discussed] now because of the schools opening, but usually in the rough and tumble of politics, different topics are covered every day. At the moment coronavirus is the only one.

And he added: “I do think that to win the trust of the public, the public needs to see me, hear me, and people want to look at you and make their own mind up and I have to give that opportunity.”

Two members of Sir Keir’s frontbench team are Yorkshire MPs, Leeds West’s Rachel Reeves is Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Doncaster North’s Ed Milliband is Shadow Business Secretary.

Asked why he chose them in particular, Sir Keir said: "Well, I was determined that we'd have a shadow cabinet of the sort of best talent that we had, and Rachel and Ed are in that camp.

“They’ve both got experience, obviously different experience, they were both delighted and very pleased to be invited and they've been really good members of the team.”

He added: “What I want is a team that's more than the sum of its parts. It's good to have their experience in there, and I'm very glad to be working with both of them and the rest of the shadow cabinet.”

One of Sir Keir’s key messages when taking up the post was of a wish to unite the party. Seen by some as a more centrist alternative to left-wing Mr Corbyn, rumours of a split within the party were reignited.

But Sir Keir said: “I don't think the party will split.”

He said: “I was very clear that if you voted for me as leader of the Labour Party, you were voting for somebody who wanted to unite our party and bring it together. And I was very pleased that a large number of our members said ‘that's what I want to vote for’.

“So I've got a clear mandate to unite the party, because factionalism gets us absolutely nowhere and all the time we're taking lumps out of each other then we're never going to be in a position where we can be elected, we need to be very, very clear about that.”

He said there would be disagreements within the party, but “the question is, how do you resolve it?

“Do you do it in a courteous, respectful way and then come to a decision and all move on? And the answer to that for me is yes.

“Or do you just carry on with a factional fight?

“I don't want people to have all the same view, with 580,000 members that's never going to happen, nor should it. Everybody has a slightly different view on things but then they pull together and respect each other and move forward, and that's what I want to do in relation to decision making in the Labour Party.”

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