LONDON – For Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, debate in Parliament used to be a noisy affair, while supporters of his Conservative Party shouted and shouted, booing his rivals and cheering him on like a classmate in a fight in the schoolyard. Nowadays, much to his disgust, it is more like a legal statement.
Facing an empty, silent chamber against the lawyer who became the leader of the opposition, Keir StarmerJohnson had to endure a weekly forensic grill in handling the coronavirus. Starmer, 57, used all of his skills in court against his opponent, beginning with a prosecutor's technique of arresting the witness with a question to which you already know the answer.
"The prime minister can tell us: how did this happen?" Starmer asked two weeks ago, after noting that the death toll in Britain was the highest in Europe and the second highest in the world, after the United States.
Johnson replied that these direct country-to-country comparisons were not valid and that the true human cost of the pandemic could only be judged after the fact, when someone could go through the statistics.
Jumping out of his chair, Starmer waved a chart on which the government made exactly those comparisons and noted that it had done so for weeks at its press briefings on the virus, when the death toll in Britain seemed comparatively better. Johnson's argument, he concluded, "just doesn't hold water."
Johnson returned to work on his fight against the virus and found his government still struggling to respond to the pandemic and rejuvenated opposition.
The social distance from Parliament means that the majority of the 650 members participate remotely, transforming an arena of gladiators, in which Johnson was once a big cat, in Starmer's courtroom.
"There is no doubt that the current configuration is advantageous," said Parvais Jabbar, a lawyer who worked with Starmer in human rights cases. “Keir is not a shouter or a screamer. He is asking questions inquisitively, but he also examines the answers he receives ".
With a majority of 80 seats, Johnson remains the dominant figure on the British political scene – a reality that was taken home when he fell ill and analysts had a hard time figuring out who could succeed him. Starmer can hold the government accountable for its failures, but it cannot realistically force significant changes to its policies.
Still, the combination of a pandemic that defies easy solutions and a new safe opponent puts Johnson on the defensive. This seems particularly true on Wednesdays during the ritual known as Questions from the Prime Minister, or PMQ, when the head of government opens with a very brief statement and then faces punches from the opposition leader, who in this case is Mr. Starmer.
Johnson is not the first prime minister to be irritated by this scrutiny. Harold Macmillan admitted to feeling physically ill in advance. Tony Blair superstitiously wore the same pair of shoes every time he walked into the chamber – or as he said "the place of execution" – for PMQs. "I hated it," he said.
Often the lucky brogues were unlucky.
“Your answers get longer and more complicated; his tone becomes more strident; his face becomes redder as the scarcity of his argument becomes clearer, ”Blair recalled later. "You look sideways, begging your own banks to show some support and see the expression of shame on their faces."
Preparing for these sessions takes time. Each week, leaders discuss with their advisers, trying to guess what issues will arise, improving their responses and strengthening themselves with lines of attack.
Unlike Starmer, Johnson is not known for his meticulous homework. As secretary of foreign affairs, he handled parliamentary questions more lightly than some of his colleagues, according to Alistair Burt, a former conservative parliamentarian who served as a junior minister in the Foreign Ministry at the time.
"He has confidence," said Burt, "Boris has never been shaken by the fact that he has to answer questions."
Starmer, however, presents an unusual challenge. He is "a forensic lawyer, raised in a court where there is virtual silence when making an observation," said Burt. It also reads the fine print.
At his second meeting last week, Starmer pressed Johnson on why, until March 12, the government advised that it was "very unlikely" that people in nursing homes were affected by the virus. New statistics have shown that deaths in nursing homes represent 40% of deaths from coronavirus.
Johnson denied that the government gave that advice, prompting the Labor Party to publish a link to the document, which the government withdrew on March 13. Starmer demanded that Johnson correct the record; he refused, accusing Starmer of quoting official statements "selectively and deceptively".
Johnson's difficulties coincided with an urge by his Conservative Party to bring all lawmakers back in person after the next recess. They insist that it is a simple matter of justice: the government cannot ask others to return to work while exempting members of parliament, he said. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, whose consciously archaic mannerisms gave him the nickname "the honorable member of the 18th century".
But conservatives also believe that a busier House of Commons would work better than the current one, in which a handful of lawmakers appear in person while the rest virtually gather from their homes.
"It is much easier to manage, control and communicate with members of Parliament if they are on site, rather than dispersing them and communicating via WhatsApp," said Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, a research organization focused on Parliament. .
Given that several members of Parliament contracted the virus earlier this year, many are reluctant to return. The speaker of the House of Commons, Lyndsey Hoyle, warned that he would suspend the sessions if many people huddled in the chamber.
For now, no more than 50 parliamentarians can attend at any one time, and a fair proportion of them are withdrawn from the opposition. This suggests that Johnson has little hope of surrounding himself with fans anytime soon.
Even if the members kept the green leather seats in the chamber, the pandemic would create a very different climate. Anguished debates about why so many people died in nursing homes do not lend themselves to applause or shouting. Johnson's ability to hide Starmer's questions, several analysts said, will ultimately matter less than his government's treatment of the virus.
Still, they said, the image of a prime minister, isolated and withered under the scrutiny of a confident labor leader, could end the airy triumphalism that Johnson has demonstrated since his overwhelming election victory.
"It's easy to see the House of Commons as a kind of vaudeville theater and ask, 'Why does it matter?'," Said Tony Travers, professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “It matters, not just because millions of people watch it. Having a good opposition leader, harming the prime minister, has consequences on morale, especially during bad times. "