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24 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:23pm

Keir Starmer’s PMQs summed up Labour’s problem

The ding-dong between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer demonstrated both the opposition party's advantage and Labour's weakness.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer had one of his best Prime Minister’s Questions in months today. And so too, paradoxically, did Boris Johnson.

The Labour leader led on the Conservative government’s cuts to the size of the armed forces. The defence review, published last week, outlined the government’s plans to reduce the size of the army to 72,500 soldiers, which Starmer delightedly quoted to the chamber. He also noted that “since 2010, our armed forces have been cut by 45,000” and quoted a promise from Johnson reported in the Sun newspaper during the 2019 election campaign that “we will not be cutting our armed services in any form”. The article and video of that promise are now circulating online. 

“You just can’t trust the Conservatives to protect our armed forces,” Starmer declared, to roars from the government benches. He also cited recent comments by a former chief of the defence staff, David Richards, that the UK would “almost certainly” be unable to recapture the Falklands today if planned cuts to troop numbers go ahead. 

But Boris Johnson didn’t struggle too badly at today’s PMQs, despite the almost impossible case put before him. He was able sincerely to deride the idea that Labour is the more trustworthy party on defence than the Conservatives, tapping into the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn and his image on defence issues, as well as more recent and obvious divisions within Labour on this topic, as he claimed that “half the shadow front bench” don’t support the UK having a nuclear deterrent. 

The Prime Minister brushed off factual attack after factual attack with his own surety of Labour divisions on this issue: which, whether or not they are true in terms of feelings about the nuclear deterrent on the front bench in particular, are, in general, accurate.  

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Labour had a free hit today on an issue where it has determined it needs to shore up its credibility. But it didn’t wash as effectively as it could have, because Labour MPs and activists are more ambivalent about defence, policing and security than the leadership would like them to be. And those aren’t incidental or unimportant differences but profound ideological ones. 

The exchange demonstrated Labour’s advantage while in opposition, as well as its problem. The thing that holds Labour back on this issue is Labour itself.

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