Keir Starmer says Boris Johnson playing ‘catch up’ on Russia — as PM blasts ‘Islingtonian Remainers’ worried about Brexit meddling
Boris Johnson clashed with Keir Starmer at PMQs. (PA)
Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of playing “catch up” over Russia’s influence in Britain — as the Prime Minister hit out at “Islington Remainers” worried about Kremlin meddling in the Brexit referendum.
In a fiery PMQs clash in the wake of a major report by the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Labour leader said Mr Johnson had “sat on” its findings despite an “immediate and urgent” threat to the UK.
But the Prime Minister in turn said his opposite number had “sat on his hands and said nothing” while former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “parroted the line of the Kremlin” in the wake of the 2018 Salisbury poisonings.
And he attacked those who claimed “Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit“.
The 50-page ISC report, published on Tuesday, called on the Government to establish whether Moscow had interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
It also warned of a string of links between Russian oligarchs connected to the Kremlin and political organisations and charities in the UK, and confirmed a host of attempts to hack British infrastructure.
Seizing on its findings in the Commons, Sir Keir asked “why on earth” the PM chose to “sit on” the report “for so long”.
Hitting back, Mr Johnnson said: “Actually when I was Foreign Secretary, for the period that I've been in office, we've been taking the strongest possible action against Russian wrongdoing — orchestrating, I seem to remember the expulsion of... Russian diplomats around the world, while the right honourable gentleman opposite sat on his hands and said nothing while the Labour Party parroted the line of the Kremlin when people in this country were poisoned on the orders of Vladimir Putin.”
Sir Keir — who in 2018 said the attack in Salisbury should be “condemned by all of us without reservation” despite the stance of then-leader Jeremy Corbyn — urged the Prime Minister to withdraw that claim.
And he said the Government had “badly underestimated the Russian threat” and was “still playing catch up”.
“The Government's taken its eye off the ball, arguably wasn't even on the pitch,” the Labour leader said.
“After this government's been in power for 10 years how does the Prime Minister explain that?”
Sir Keir also mounted a defence of his own record, pointing out he had been involved in bringing proceedings against Russia on behalf of the family of murdered dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
“That is why I was so strong about it,” the Labour leader said.
And he added: “I spent five years as Director of Public Prosecutions working on live operations with the security intelligence services, so I'm not going to take the lectures from the Prime Minister national security.”
Labour was, he said, “under new management”.
But Mr Johnson branded the Labour leader’s line of questioning was “absolutely absurd”.
And he claimed there was “no country in the Western world that is more vigilant in protecting the interests of this country or the international community from Russian interference”.
He said the Government — which is expected to propose new laws requiring foreign agents to register iwith the authorities in the UK — would “go further” in its response to Russia with “new legislation to protect critical national infrastructure and to protect our intellectual property”.
And, turning his fire on critics of the Government, Mr Johnson blamed opponents of Brexit for focusing on Kremlin interference.
“This is about pressure from the Islingtonian Remainers who have seized on this on this report to try to give the impression that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit,” he argued.
“That’s what this is all about. But the people of this country didn't vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia or Russian interference.
“They voted because they wanted to take back control of our money, of our trade policy, of our laws, and the simple fact is that after campaigning for remain, after wanting to overturn the people's referendum, day in, day out for all of the period when he was sitting on the Labour frontbench, he simply can’t bring himself to accept that.”
Taking a swipe back at the Prime Minister, the Labour leader said: “I see the Prime Minister's already on his pre-prepared lines. This is a serious, serious question of national security. The Prime Minister sat on this report for 10 months and failed to plug a gap in our national security for a year and a half.”