Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions session was the first in a long time not dominated by Covid-19. Instead, the Russia report was on the agenda. It was also one of the clearest and least bumbling performances from Boris Johnson at the despatch box. He came prepared with his attack lines this afternoon – seeking to deflect scrutiny on the intelligence and security committee’s report by accusing the Labour leader of flip-flopping on his approach to Russia, and of trying to undermine the Brexit referendum with its findings. Actual policy discussion was largely sidelined but the PM did mention his government’s proposed security laws, which Starmer said Labour is willing to support.
The Labour leader challenged the PM over why he sat on the Russia report for so long, saying that Johnson “failed to plug a gap in our law on national security for a year and a half”. The Tory leader made the (baseless) claim that there is “no country in the Western world that is more vigilant” than the UK in protecting against Russian interference. He moved on swiftly to the line he then repeated several times, both to the Labour leader and other MPs in the session: “These criticisms are motivated by a desire to undermine the referendum on membership of the EU that took place in 2016, the result of which he simply cannot bring himself to accept.” With cries of “Islingtonian Remainers” and the “Remainer elite”, it was like being transported to a pre-Covid world in which we all talked about Brexit incessantly.
Johnson then accused Starmer of having “more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach”. He claimed twice that Starmer had “sat on his hands” under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, “while the Labour Party parroted the line of the Kremlin” after the Salisbury attack. Starmer quietly directed him to check the record – you can see the Labour leader condemning the incident in 2018 here. And when Starmer suggested the government “look again at the licensing for Russia Today to operate in the UK”, Johnson challenged him for not calling out the former Labour leader for appearing on the programme. The PM summed up by saying: “He flip-flops from day-to-day, Mr Speaker” – to which Starmer quickly replied that “this is the former columnist who wrote two versions of every article ever published”.
This line from Johnson, attacking Starmer for apparent U-turns on various issues, is something he’s been keen to push in recent weeks. He tried it with the reopening of schools in the pandemic, for example, and will do so again. The PM is attempting to exploit Starmer’s commitment to a “constructive approach to opposition”, so often mentioned in his first few weeks as leader. Starmer has been increasingly vocal in criticising the government recently – on coronavirus, China and now Russia – and as he ramps up this criticism, we should expect to see more of the same tactic from Johnson. In terms of deflecting the debate away from serious scrutiny, the strategy worked today. Starmer’s ‘forensic’ questioning didn’t seem to fluster the PM as it has done before.
For his part, Starmer put clear water between himself and Corbyn in the national security-dominated exchange. The Labour leader declared to the Commons: “In case the PM hasn’t noticed, the Labour Party is under new management.” He reminded MPs of his time as director of public prosecutions, saying that he spent five years “working on live operations with the security and intelligence services”. He also highlighted his involvement in bringing proceedings against Russia on behalf of the family of Alexander Litvinenko, and said national security would be a top priority for Labour under his leadership. The message was clear from the Labour leader this afternoon: he can be tough on national security.