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Artillery Row

PMQs: Time to move on

Whatever Boris Johnson may claim, Starmer has emerged from Corbyn’s shadow

“Under my leadership, national security will always be the top priority for Labour” began Keir Starmer in the final PMQs before the summer recess. The “my” had added emphasis – for the current Labour leader knows that if he is to speak about the threat from foreign powers, particularly from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a pre-requisite is to distance himself as much as possible from Jeremy Corbyn.

In choosing to make the previous day’s release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Report the subject of his prosecution, Starmer had first to decide which parts of it to emphasise and which to ignore. Outside in Parliament Square a platoon of EU-flag waving true believers were livening-up their on-off vigil with loud-speakers pumping-out traditional Russian folk music, presumably to underline their certainty that Russian money had swung the referendum for Leave rather than to celebrate our common pan-European home from the Atlantic to the Urals. But Starmer was not going to join their merry dance by mentioning anything that would give Boris Johnson an opportunity to suggest he was still a sore Islington Remainer, ready to grasp at anything to deny the people’s verdict.

Instead, the Labour leader played it safe by keeping it simple. He asked why the Prime Minister had sat on the ISC’s Russia Report for ten months despite its warning that Russia posed an “immediate and urgent threat.”

Without making the slightest effort to explain the delay in publishing the Report, Johnson pointed out that whist Foreign Secretary he had orchestrated an international response resulting in the expulsion of 153 Russian diplomats in the aftermath of the Salisbury poisonings. At the time, Starmer had “sat on his hands and said nothing” to contradict his leader’s parroting “the line of the Kremlin”. Later when Starmer asked for Russia Today’s (RT’s) licence to be reviewed “to prevent the spread of Moscow backed misinformation”, Johnson snapped back, “I think this would come more credibly from the Leader of the Opposition had he called out the former Leader of the Opposition when he took money for appearing on Russia Today.”

Past association with Comrade Jeremy was not the end of the charge sheet. It was the Prime Minister, not Starmer, who brought the Brexit referendum into the mix, accusing the Labour leader of being in hoc to “Islingtonian Remainers.”

If Starmer hoped to avoid implication in his predecessor’s nostalgia for all things Russian or have mention of his own recent past in the elite guard of the Remainian resistance, he had under-estimated his sparring partner’s unerring ability to hit low and after the bell.

Starmer is Prince Hal to Falstaff no longer.

And yet the blows did not visibly draw blood. Whilst Johnson was seeking to implicate Starmer in Corbyn’s worldview, in the land beyond the Commons chamber, Starmer’s determination to distance Labour from the Corbyn-era anti-Semitism allegations were being made manifest at the High Court. There Labour agreed large compensation payments and “unreserved” apologies to seven former party officials and to the Panorama broadcaster, Jon Ware. Corbyn duly sniffed that his successor’s decision to apologise and pay compensation was a “political decision, not a legal one” – emphasising the extent to which whatever comradeship/electoral expediency once kept the two men together, they can no longer be bothered to keep the pretence going now. Starmer is Prince Hal to Falstaff no longer.

Back in the chamber, Starmer did not hide his irritation, firing back that he had condemned the Salisbury poisonings at the time. He demanded that the Prime Minister retract the slur that he had “sat on his hands” (purists might point out that the exact point of dispute was whether Starmer had at the time condemned Corbyn’s Moscow-sympathetic comments, so no apology will likely be forthcoming). Labour was now “under new management” in case the Prime Minister had not noticed.

The final exchange between Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition before the recess ended with Starmer asking about the plight of the Uighurs and Johnson giving a reply that mostly involved puffing-up what the Government was going to do to build more hospitals and pay for more police officers. As advocacy for the summer holidays to commence urgently, it was perfectly pitched.

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