Keir Starmer wasted little time in laying out early battle lines as he seeks to return his U.K. opposition Labour Party to power, criticizing Boris Johnson’s Conservatives over austerity and the damage done to the National Health Service.
While promising to work “constructively” with the government as it tackles the coronavirus outbreak, Starmer made clear he’s willing to take the fight to Johnson on spending and the NHS, an area the prime minister has staked out as his own through the Brexit referendum and last year’s general election.
Johnson’s Virus Fight Banks on British Love for Health Service
“It is going to be a completely different future, but what we can’t do is go back to business as usual,” Starmer said in a BBC interview on Sunday. “What we can’t do is make the mistake we made in 2010 and go for another decade of austerity. We’ve seen what that has done to the country.”
Starmer was elected Labour leader on Saturday and named his top team of shadow cabinet ministers on Sunday. Anneliese Dodds becomes the first woman to be shadow chancellor of the exchequer, and Lisa Nandy, who stood against Starmer for the leadership, becomes shadow foreign secretary.
Johnson’s pledges to divert the U.K.’s European Union contributions to the health service effectively weaponized the NHS in the 2016 Brexit debate, and the prime minister put his aim to boost nurses and funding at the forefront of his election campaign. He’s now also framing a nationwide lockdown as a bid to “save the NHS” as he seeks to persuade Britons to stay at home to halt the spread of Covid-19.
Even so, Johnson is on risky ground. The last decade under Conservative or Conservative-led governments has seen the NHS under more pressure than at any time since it was founded in 1948, with deeper-than-average cuts to hospital beds, 40,000 unfilled nursing positions and fewer doctors as a percentage of the population than some of the U.K.’s neigbors drawing particular scrutiny in the coronavirus outbreak.
The problem for Starmer is that nobody yet knows how long the outbreak will last -- and what the damage to the U.K. economy will be. But the Labour leader, who has a significant mandate following a comfortable victory announced on Saturday, said the country faces a “reckoning” and indicated higher taxes would play a part in Labour policy.
“It is inevitable that we have to ask those that have more, to pay more,” he said.
The impact of the virus, Starmer said, would require the U.K. to “re-imagine” its economy.
“We now know who the key workers really are and they’ve often been overlooked, underpaid, and there’s got to be a change,” he said. “They were last, now they’ve got to be first. We’ve got to look at funding, the NHS has struggled for funding over the last 10 years.”
Starmer promised to put together a “balanced” shadow cabinet as he tries to haul the party back into government. But while his early remarks have focused on uniting Labour, he delivered a veiled criticism of recent comments by his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
“The country wants to see politicians and political parties pulling together to face coronavirus -- not claiming victory over arguments or otherwise,” he said. “I will work with the government to help them save lives and protect our country.”
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