‘PM not fit for Government’: Starmer blames Arwen response on Christmas party row 'distraction'

Keir Starmer has continued his criticism of the Government's response to Storm Arwen, saying the Prime Minister was "distracted talking about accusations of parties in Downing Street".

While on a visit to Hadston in Northumberland, the Labour leader accused Boris Johnson of failing to act quickly enough to widespread outages in the aftermath of the storm.

He also said successive Conservative governments failed to put a plan in place to deal with storm events, adding that people in the north east feel more attention would have been given to the incident had it taken place in the south.

"The Prime Minister isn't fit for Government," Mr Starmer told ITV News Tyne Tees.

"He's lost a grip and people are paying the price for this."

On more than one occasion during the interview, Starmer linked alleged shortcomings in the Government's response to Storm Arwen with the Christmas Party row.

Boris Johnson has denied accusations of Covid rule-breaking parties held in 10 Downing Street last Christmas while the country was in lockdown.

"The frustration of people here in Northumberland that I've been speaking to is very, very deep and they feel strongly that if this had happened in the south, it would have had the attention," Mr Starmer argued.

"There was no plan in place," he continued.

"The Government took seven days before they called it a major incident and started putting support in.

Though critical of Northern Powergrid's response - saying he does not think it was "very good" - Mr Starmer added: "It is the Government that has the responsibility to make sure there is a plan in place for a storm or a flood like this...

"What we've got at the moment is generators that are a bit touch and go. What you really need is a plan so that if there's a storm - if a power line is taken out - there's a plan in place to replace that as quickly as possible.

Timeline - The Government's response to Storm Arwen:

  • Friday 26 November - Storm Arwen hits, leaving nearly 250,000 homes and businesses without power.

  • Monday 29 November - Boris Johnson says "government is on standby to provide" assistance to Scottish Government in their Storm Arwen response.

  • Wednesday 1 December - Energy Minister Greg Hands visits County Durham, where outages remained widespread in rural areas.

  • Thursday 2 December - Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak visits Yarm in North Yorkshire, says "people are working incredibly hard" to bring power back.

  • Friday 3 December - Military arrive in County Durham to provide relief.

  • Saturday 4 December - Boris Johnson tweets: This afternoon I held a number of calls with those leading the response to Storm Arwen, including local community leaders in Northumbria, Durham and Darlington, and Lt Col Mark Steed, who is coordinating the military involvement in the response."

  • Sunday 5 December - Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng visits Durham, says: "there will be some sort of enforcement measures to make sure the companies are held to account".

  • Monday 6 December - Defence Secretary Ben Wallace extends military support until Wednesday.

  • Friday 10 December - Government launches review into the electricity network.

Mr Starmer also defended his party's response to the storm.

When he was asked "where have you been though?", Starmer said Labour raised the issue in Parliament, called for an investigation, and had councillors volunteering in communities.

He also said, "We sent a shadow minister up here very, very quickly".

Labour's Jim McMahon, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, visited the North East on 2 December - one day after the Government's Energy Minister Greg Hands' arrival.

ITV News Tyne Tees approached the Government for comment.

A Government spokesperson said:

A government spokesperson said: "We understand this has been a deeply distressing time for people who have faced disruption. While power has now been restored to all homes, it is completely unacceptable it took so long.

"We are grateful for the tireless efforts of engineers, volunteers and the Armed Forces personnel who worked so hard to restore power and help those affected.

 "To improve the resilience of electricity networks in Great Britain, the government has launched a review into how energy operators responded to Storm Arwen so the scale of the issues does not happen again.

"Energy regulator Ofgem has also launched a review to consider if appropriate enforcement action should be taken against energy network operators.”

Ministers have previously defended the Cabinet's response to Storm Arwen.

In a statement, Northern Powergrid said:

"We’re very sorry for the hardship and disruption our customers experienced as we battled to reconnect supplies to 240,000 homes and businesses after one of the most powerful and damaging winter storms to hit the UK in decades. The scale and impact of Storm Arwen devastated parts of our network.

"Our top priority was to safely reconnect our customers as soon as we could, keep them informed to the best of our abilities and do everything we could to support the wider effort in our communities aimed at helping those who needed us the most. 

"This storm showed that there are areas where we need to improve. In particular, in the way we use our systems to communicate with our customers when there are major power cuts.

"We’ve already made some changes and will learn more lessons from the reviews that will follow. Now the power is back on, we are focused on proactively organising compensation for our customers in line with industry guaranteed standards.”