NOW more than a month into his new starring role as leader of the Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, and the reviews for Sir Keir Starmer are starting to trickle in.

Some critics, even the notoriously tough birds, have warmed to him, throwing stars like confetti at a wedding.

On his performance at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the BBC’s Andrew Neil praised Sir Keir for posing “six, forensic, fact-based, important questions”. He got a result, too, securing an admission from Boris Johnson that a lack of testing capacity was the reason for the early halting of track and trace.

Neil’s praise did not stop there. On his performance against First Secretary Dominic Raab while the PM was convalescing, the former Sunday Times editor declared that “the UK now had a functioning, probing, measured, informed official opposition. The government will need to raise its game”.

Not everyone is as impressed. An Ipsos Mori survey at the end of April asked a sample of the public who they thought was doing a good or bad job in holding the UK Government to account during the virus crisis. Top of the league were the journalists at the 5pm Downing Street press briefings, with 43% of respondents praising their effectiveness.

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Bottom was the Labour Party, 18%, with its new leader faring not much better with 24%.

With 29% backing him, Piers Morgan, motormouth co-presenter of Good Morning Britain, was hailed as being a better leader of the opposition than the actual leader of the opposition.

As Ipsos MORI pointed out, Sir Keir’s low rating may be explained by his not yet appearing on many people’s radars. Any leader of the opposition struggles to break through the noise of the everyday cut and thrust. Few have faced the roaring din of the coronavirus crisis.

Slowly and surely, however, he is making his presence felt, whether it be in a televised response to Boris Johnson’s address on easing the lockdown in England, at PMQs, and in the press generally.

He has been interviewed for this paper by our Westminster correspondent Hannah Rodger, and last Saturday he was the cover star of the FT Weekend magazine, complete with arty, moody, black and white photography. He intends to make more visits to Scotland when circumstances allow, and has already begun a series of virtual meetings with the Scottish public.

Other than wartime it is hard to imagine more difficult circumstances for a new leader of the opposition to be taking up his job. He must hold the Government to account at the same time as supporting its efforts to save lives and keep people afloat financially; he needs to point out mistakes without appearing to gloat; and he has to call into question the competence of a Prime Minister who remains popular (for now) in many parts, and who was himself a victim of the virus.

Sir Keir’s approach has been one of offering “constructive opposition”. Yesterday’s PMQs was another illustration of what this strategy looks like in action.

As the second time the two men have clashed at PMQs, the session was also a chance to see how their relationship is shaping up. Every leader hopes to be lucky in their opposite number at PMQs, to be the Thatcher to the Kinnock, the early years Blair to the IDS.

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Mr Johnson and Sir Keir have sharply different styles, the PM’s bluster and waffle contrasting with his opposite number’s clipped precision. The Labour leader did not get the better of the PM to the same extent he did last week. The run-up to his questions was too long and meandering, and he was laying the civility on with a trowel instead of a knife. There remains, too, the not so small matter of his personality. Perhaps it is newcomer’s nerves, but his voice does take on a certain John Major tone, or should that be drone, at times. If the Commons chamber ever gets back to its usual packed state at PMQs he could struggle to be heard. In general, he is a man not overburdened with charisma.

Then again, one person’s charm is another’s smarm. Where he impressed most yesterday was in his ability to get under the PM’s skin, this time on international comparisons of death rates – an exercise the Government took part in until the UK figures became the worst in Europe. The Labour leader had an advantage, and he pressed it home.

Scotland has a stake in whether Sir Keir’s approach to opposition works. We should be in the market to learn about any kind of effective opposition, because heaven knows we do not have much of one at the moment.

Before coronavirus, the opposition parties at Holyrood were failing to hold the government to account on a long list of subjects, from not meeting NHS waiting time targets to falling education standards.

We know how this state of affairs has come about. In a matter of years both the Conservatives and Scottish Labour lost their leaders and replaced them with less effective candidates; the Scottish Greens keep the SNP in power, and as for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, two words: Willie, Rennie. You do not need to be a fan of Nicola Sturgeon to acknowledge that she is head and shoulders above the other party leaders. Which is good for her and her party, but it makes for a pretty poor show when it comes to holding government to account.

There is another reason, other than the present crisis, to hope the opposition parties in Scotland get their act together soon. The next Scottish Parliament election is less than a year away. Who knows what position Scotland and the UK will be in then. Given the ever more dire assessments of the impact of coronavirus on the economy, governments around the UK will be dealing with levels of unemployment and hardship the likes of which have not been seen in generations.

The economic landscape has changed utterly, and in time politics will catch up.

Now, more than ever, we need governments that are up to the job, and oppositions to match.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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