PMQs: Rayner attacks Tory record on security over Lebedev and Saudi visit

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Today, it was Angela Rayner and Dominic Raab up in the House of Commons, as Boris Johnson is currently travelling in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to urge them to increase oil production. Johnson’s visit has drawn significant criticism given Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record and the news that 81 people were executed in the country over the weekend. But Rayner decided to begin her scrutiny by “wholeheartedly” welcoming the positive steps seen today towards the return to the UK of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori following their release by Iran. Labour’s deputy leader stressed that “this devastating situation must never be repeated” and called on her opposite number to commit to a review. In a strong response, the Deputy Prime Minister rejected this idea, accusing Rayner of giving “succour to the despotic regime” that detained our nationals “by suggesting its anyone else’s responsibility other than theirs”.

Rayner argued that it was “important to learn from our mistakes”, pivoting to the ongoing controversy around the granting of a peerage to Evgeny Lebedev. Raab emphasised that all peerages recognise the contribution of recipients to the UK, arguing that many of those of Russia origin are critics of the Putin regime. Rayner pushed back, stressing that “the central duty of any government is to keep the British people safe”, signalling again that Labour is trying to strengthen its reputation on security by undermining the Conservative record in this area. She also brought the focus back to government sleaze – an issue shown to have significant cut-through – highlighting reports that the Prime Minister ignored warnings from the intelligence services about Lebedev. “It shouldn’t matter if such a warning was about a close personal friend of the Prime Minster, it shouldn’t matter if he gave the PM thousands of pounds of gifts and it shouldn’t matter how much champagne and caviar he serves,” she argued.

In his reply, Raab tried to exploit recent divisions in the Labour Party over NATO’s role in the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, by slamming the party’s defence policy under Jeremy Corbyn and emphasising Rayner’s role in campaigning for him. “She voted for that,” he shouted, asking “has there ever been a more ridiculous, reckless, naive moment to call for unilateral nuclear disarmament and pulling out of NATO?”. Undeterred, Rayner had a strong finish, bringing the discussion round to the Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia. She accused Johnson of going around the region “cap in hand from one dictator to another on a begging mission”.

Rayner’s overall aim in this session was to challenge the Tory record on security and position Labour as the party that will protect the British people at this extremely uncertain time. The war in Ukraine has required a show of unity across political divides, much as the pandemic did, but the Lebedev scandal and the government’s decision to court favour from Saudi Arabia has allowed Labour to criticise ministers.

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