“You just can’t trust the Conservatives to protect our armed forces,” Keir Starmer told parliament today. The Labour leader and Boris Johnson clashed this afternoon over the recently unveiled reductions to the army size. Reminding MPs that the Tory Prime Minister promised in the 2019 election that he would not be cutting the armed services “in any form”, Starmer accused Johnson of “playing with the numbers” when he claimed that, with reserves included, the army would remain at 100,000. Starmer highlighted that despite the PM’s 2019 promise, and that of the Tory manifestos in 2017 and 2015, the armed forces has been cut by 45,000 since 2010 and will after this latest reduction be at its smallest in 300 years. “Did he ever intend to keep his promise to our armed forces?” he asked.
And today was more about trust than defence. There is a pattern here, the Labour leader argued. “He promised the NHS that they would have, quote ‘whatever they need’. Now nurses are getting a pay cut,” he said. “He promised a tax guarantee, now he’s putting taxes up for families. He promised he wouldn’t cut the armed forces, now he’s done just that.” Just as you can’t trust the Tories on the armed forces, neither can they be trusted with the NHS or on protecting families. Johnson in response twice accused the Labour leader of standing on a platform at the last election to elect Jeremy Corbyn, who he claimed was determined to “pull this country out of NATO” – despite what the 2019 manifesto actually said. Starmer in turn told MPs that Johnson is simply “fighting the last war”.
The new opposition leadership is avidly trying to, as John Healey told LabourList in November, “develop an authoritative Labour voice on defence again”. In a speech just last month, the Shadow Defence Secretary described Labour’s commitment to NATO as “unshakeable” and its support for the UK’s nuclear deterrent as “non-negotiable”. Johnson picked up on this during Prime Minister’s Questions. “It’s wonderful to hear this new spirit of jingo that seems to have enveloped some of the Labour frontbenchers,” he told his Conservative colleagues.
While it might be spurious, Johnson keeps harking back to the former Labour leader; invoking the spectre of Corbyn. And he will continue to do so, especially on an issue on which Labour has historically struggled to be trusted by voters. Starmer knows that pairing an issue on which you are not trusted, defence, with one on which you are, the NHS, is a tried and tested political strategy. And trust is the common thread here. The PM is the quintessential slippery politician, with promises made easily and even more easily broken. Starmer will continue to use that to try and pin him down.