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It's taken 19 months, but Keir Starmer thinks he's finally got the measure of Boris Johnson

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It may have taken 19 long months, but has Keir Starmer finally got the measure of Boris Johnson? Well, judging from the latest Prime Minister's question time, the Labour leader certainly thinks he has. Starmer sounded the most confident and relaxed he's been since he took over the weekly sparring session back in April 2020.

Exactly three weeks on from Johnson's botched bid to defend Owen Paterson, the task was to capitalise on both the latest Tory social care rebellion and the blundering CBI speech. And although the PM waved his hands like a goalkeeper in a penalty shoot-out, Starmer did not miss the open goal.

After last week's disastrous performance in front of empty Tory benches, Johnson could hardly have done worse. Thanks to frantic late texts from whips, there was less green space behind him (though Government benches were still far from packed) and he arrived determined to maximise the wall of noise that often acts as his get-out-of-jail card in PMQs.

But this time, the noise was not enough. The Wednesday high noon contest is often decided by the self-assuredness of each of the players as much as what they say, and Starmer exuded the confidence his troops have long hoped for. 

His opener - the PM's manifesto guarantee that no one would have to sell their home to pay for care was now another broken promise, wasn't it? - was short and sharp. After two non-answers, Johnson gave the game away with his reply that "I am going to have a third go at trying to clear this up…"

Far from clearing it up, he simply highlighted the catch in his guarantee: that people could "defer" care cost payments. That only laid bare that the new plan would leave the less well-off forced to sell their homes after they die.

Straight after PMQs, a No.10 spokeswoman refused to repeat the 2019 manifesto guarantee and instead spelled out the details of the small print. When it comes to care costs, a person's "home will not count towards their assets while they are living in it and while their spouse lives in it," she said.

Crucially, Starmer has also learned that ridicule is often the best weapon against the PM, and his jibe about that awkward CBI speech - "Is everything OK, Prime Minister?" - was delivered with the theatre often missing from his delivery.

His reminder of Tory backbench unease ("who knows if he'll make it to the next election") was followed by a marked attempt to target not just Johnson but also his possible successor, Rishi Sunak. Describing the PM as a distraction merchant while the Chancellor picks people's pockets with tax hikes was part of a deliberate Labour strategy to rope the pair of them together like reckless mountaineers.

Not every punch landed. His "working class dementia tax" felt like too much of a mouthful to be a successful soundbite. Johnson also clearly thinks his counter-attacks on "Captain Hindsight", a man he claims (falsely) opposed the vaccines taskforce and opposed Covid unlockdown, still captures the image of the Labour leader as a dull "Remoaner".

The difference now is that Labour's (narrow) lead in the polls is bleeding into a wider public dissatisfaction with the PM. The latest SavantaComRes poll was notable not just for Johnson's lowest ratings among general voters, but also for the fact that his net favourability among 2019 Tory voters has plunged 13 points from +48 to +35.

With the winter cost of living crisis looming, perhaps just as worrying for Tory MPs is the new IpsosMORI poll showing a clear majority of the public expect the economy to get worse in the next 12 months (54 per cent) and only 28 per cent think it will improve.

In his final answer to Starmer, the PM pointed to rising employment and rising wages. That may have sounded tone deaf, but it was enough for Michael Gove to wave his furled Order Paper in triumph. When PMQs ended, Priti Patel patted Johnson on the arm.

Within hours, he and his Home Secretary were discussing the tragic news of the migrants found dead in a Channel boat crossing. Some Labour MPs were braced for the Conservatives trying to exploit the tragedy as part of a culture war attempt to paint their opponents as 'soft' on immigration.

But although there are no easy answers to the Channel crossings problem (and Labour seems to lack them too), if ministers try to politicise it, then critics will point to Patel's own repeated failure to meet her promises to solve the issue.

The PM looks like he's already ramping up the blame game with France and the EU. Yet as with the cost of living crisis, his own Government's record on immigration is a reminder that governments that have been in power too long often lose elections as much as oppositions win them.

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