UK Politics: Starmer slams Hancock and calls for virtual parliament

Labour leader Keir Starmer
Starmer thinks pandemic response needs parliamentary scrutiny
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Labour leader thinks pandemic response requires more scrutiny as public support for government starts to waver, writes Max Liu. Meanwhile, a brief history of PMs' illnesses in office.

"The Tories’ next election odds, which are often a reliable indicator of public mood, have drifted this week, with a hung parliament now the marginal favourite [2.2] over the Tory majority [2.28]."

The Labour leader Keir Starmer has united with the other opposition parties to request the recall of parliament. He said there was "no substitute for parliamentary scrutiny... at this time of national crisis."

Parliament was suspended on 25 March and is scheduled to return on 21 April, although there is little chance of that happening. Now opposition MPs are calling for a virtual parliament to be set up so MPs can ask the government important questions about their handling of the pandemic.

Is the government losing support?

So far the government has received positive approval ratings from the public over its handling of the coronavirus. But there are signs that is changing, with a survey this week showing that two thirds of the public thought the government's response was too slow.

More than 40% of respondents to the same survey, which was carried out by Ipsos Mori in the week commencing 30 March, said they felt the government's messaging had been confused and inconsistent.

The Tories' next election odds, which are often a reliable indicator of public mood, have drifted this week, with a hung parliament now the marginal favourite [2.2] over the Tory majority [2.28]. The Conservatives are still odds-on, however, to win the most seats at [1.74] next time the UK goes to the polls.

Politicians from all opposition parties, as well as some Tories, are frustrated at the daily press conferences which they think allow the government to go unchallenged. Matt Hancock was heavily criticised by Starmer, other MPs, doctors and nurses after the health secretary used Friday's press conference to urge NHS workers not to overuse personal protective equipment.

Today new shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said the government needed to set out an exit strategy from the lockdown amid reports that there is a split in the cabinet between those who want to end it at the beginning of May and those who think it needs to continue until at least late May.

Today's Sunday Mail divides the factions into Hawks, who want a quick end to lockdown, and Doves. Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel are among the former while Hancock and Michael Gove are said to belong to the latter group.

Johnson not the first PM to suffer illness in office

Boris Johnson is out of intensive care and this weekend has praised NHS staff, saying he owes his life to them. The prime minister was admitted to hospital a week ago and was moved to intensive care on Monday evening, prompting well wishes from politicians across the global political spectrum.

Johnson is by no means the first PM to suffer a serious illness in Downing Street. His hero Winston Churchill suffered a stroke during his second stint as PM in 1953, meaning he conducted much government business from his bedside until 1955. Churchill was also famously dogged by depression.

Harold Wilson showed symptoms from 1974 to '76 that were later diagnosed as colon cancer. Wilson may also, according to neurologists who analysed his changing speech patterns, have suffered from Alzheimer's while in Downing Street.

Parliament Churchill 956.jpg

More recently, Tony Blair was rushed to hospital in 2004 after he complained of chest pains. He was 51 - four years younger than Johnson is today - and was treated for a heart flutter.

Blair's successor Gordon Brown revealed his problems with eyesight in 2009. Brown's difficulties stemmed from a childhood rugby injury and he said at the time that "it would be a terrible indictment of our political system if you thought that because someone had this medical issue, they couldn't do the job."

Illness in office then is nothing new for prime ministers and the public can be sympathetic, regardless of their political views, as much of the reaction to Johnson's hospitalisation showed this week. How, if at all, it affects his approach to office will be fascinating to see.

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