PMQs: Starmer questions the witness over “the return of Tory sleaze”

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer enjoyed himself today as he challenged Boris Johnson over the Greensill scandal when the pair met for Prime Minister’s Questions. The session took on a courtroom feel as Starmer leaned into his experience as a barrister. The two party leaders also engaged in a Line of Duty battle, with both referring to the popular BBC show in their contributions: Starmer told MPs that Ted Hastings and AC-12 are needed to get to the bottom of the lobbying scandal; Johnson expressed his desire to tackle “bent coppers”, which has become a catchphrase of sorts.

“Every day, there is further evidence of the sleaze that’s now at the heart of this Conservative government,” the Labour leader said. He set out the evidence for the jury: Lex Greensill, the wealthy businessman hired as an adviser by the then PM David Cameron, then hires Cameron when he is out of a job. The former PM then lobbied on behalf of Greensill for taxpayer money and arranged access to cabinet officials and ministers, with Rishi Sunak saying he “pushed” his team to accommodate Cameron and Matt Hancock taking meetings with Greensill. Finally, the coup de grâce revealed on Tuesday, that former head of procurement Bill Crothers joined the financial firm while still working for as a civil servant. “Does the Prime Minister accept there’s a revolving door – indeed, an open door – between his Conservative government and paid lobbyists?” Starmer asked.

Johnson attempted to deflect, taking aim at the 2019 Labour manifesto commitment to repeal the 2014 Lobbying Act. He conveniently forgot to mention that the manifesto also pledged to introduce a lobbying register covering both in-house lobbyists and think tanks and extending to contacts made with all senior government employees. Johnson protested that Labour is (informally) now being advised by Peter ‘Prince of Darkness’ Mandelson and said the New Labour peer should reveal his other clients. Starmer described this as the “shoplifters’ defence”, summed up as “everybody else is nicking stuff, so why can’t I?”. He went on to highlight his previous experience as director of public prosecutions: “I not only prosecuted shoplifters. I prosecuted MPs over the MPs’ expenses scandal, so I stand on my record – that line just isn’t going to wash with me.”

“This is the return of Tory sleaze,” the Labour leader declared. Today was also a return for Labour to the well of Conservative corruption, taking the ‘cronyism’ accusations made frequently over the past year to a higher level. Appealing to MPs to back the opposition day debate motion being brought by Labour later this afternoon, Starmer urged the Commons to join Labour in demanding a “full, transparent, independent inquiry” as “the Prime Minister will not act against sleaze, but this House can”. Starmer was on good form this afternoon, showing more personality than usual, and seemed impervious to the counter-attacks from Johnson. The question is whether ‘Teflon Boris’ will shoulder the blame in the eyes of the British public, and whether Labour itself gets dragged into a messy web of historical allegations. Starmer is rightly going heavy on cronyism and sleaze, but will it translate into electoral returns?

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