Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson faced off this afternoon ahead of the Budget. With the economic statement overshadowing the session, the Labour leader focused on a slightly less mainstream but no less important issue. He took aim at the government’s foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia and involvement in the crisis in Yemen – in particular, the sale of weapons, which continue to fuel civilian deaths, and the cuts to humanitarian aid.
“Whilst President Biden has suspended arms sales that could be used in Yemen, the UK hasn’t,” Starmer told MPs, pointing out that the government sold weapons worth £1.4bn to Saudi Arabia in three months last year. “Given everything we know about the appalling humanitarian cost of this war, with innocent civilians caught between the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels, why does the Prime Minister think it’s right to be selling these weapons?” And “to make matters worse”, the Labour leader reminded those watching of the recent government decision to cut aid spending to Yemen by half – despite the UN having said the country faces the “worst famine the world has seen for decades”. How can he justify that, Starmer asked and told MPs: “If this is what the PM thinks global Britain should look like, he should think again.”
Johnson tried to shift the focus back to the UK, criticising the Labour leader for not addressing “the questions of the hour”. “He could have asked anything about the coronavirus pandemic,” Johnson argued. “Instead, he’s concentrated his questions entirely to the interests of the people of Yemen.” But this is a plainly stupid argument. He knows full well that Starmer will respond on the Budget later this afternoon anyway as Rishi Sunak delivers it.
The session was a strong one from Starmer. He effectively highlighted an embarrassing issue for Johnson. With the change in administration in the US, the UK government is now increasingly isolated in its dealings with the oppressive Saudi regime and its role in the Yemen crisis is shameful. 20 million people, two-thirds of the Yemeni population, depend on humanitarian assistance. And the cut to aid announced this week follows six years of conflict, throughout which the UK has supplied arms, claiming the lives of more than 18,400 civilians.
Now, Johnson’s attack was an incoherent one – but it does betray the thinking behind government policy. As the Tories cut aid to millions of starving children and continue to supply their attackers with weapons, the PM is hoping that the public simply won’t notice.