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2 March 2022

What we learned from PMQs: Keir Starmer isn’t asking the tough questions

Many in parliament appear to have resigned themselves to Ukraine’s fall rather than demanding Britain do more to prevent it.

By Harry Lambert

Can someone tell Keir Starmer there is a war on? We are on the verge of humanitarian disaster and a week into the invasion of Ukraine but today the Labour leader only asked second-order questions in PMQs: questions of oligarchs and sanctions, but not the direct questions of war — of aircraft and supplies, of military and humanitarian aid.

What did Starmer ask today? As ever, the opposition leader had six questions. His first few focused on individuals in Russia. First, why hasn’t the billionaire owner of Chelsea Footbal Club Roman Abramovich been sanctioned? “It’s not appropriate for me to comment on individual cases,” replied Johnson, to groans from Labour’s ranks. Second, why hasn’t Igor Shuvalov, Putin’s former deputy prime minister and the owner of two valuable London flats, been sanctioned? Johnson didn’t answer, instead rattling off Britain’s international role in imposing sanctions.

Third, Starmer continued, is the prime ashamed that we only know about Shuvalov’s properties because of the investigative work of the jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny rather than Britain’s own? Johnson highlighted the new register of property ownership that his government is introducing. Starmer followed by seizing on the seemingly fatal flaw in the proposed register: the 18-month “grace period”, or delay, until it will be in force. Johnson again offered no direct reply, instead focusing on Russia’s financial troubles (“This is the third day the Russian stock market hasn’t opened!”).

Starmer bore on with two further plodding inquiries, any energy that once existed in the chamber dissipating with each non-question. Will the prime minister, Starmer asked, work with us to reform the Economic Crime Bill due to come before the House on Monday? (What was Johnson going say: no?) And does the prime minister agree, Starmer concluded, that this House and this country stands united in our support for Ukraine, and now is the time to sanction every oligarch and crack open every country? “Yes, Mr Speaker,” Johnson replied, “and that is why we have brought in the measures that we have.”

Meanwhile, miles-long military convoys are bearing down upon Kyiv. Missiles are obliterating Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. Russian forces are making progress in the south, and Ukrainians in villages and towns are facing unimaginable ultimatums: surrender or be shelled.

The war for Europe rages 1,300 miles away, while Westminster focuses on — and congratulates itself over — economic sanctions that will have no immediate effect on Putin’s advance. Ukraine needs fighter jets to close its own skies. On Sunday night the EU suggested Ukraine would receive them; its besieged air force seemed to be on the verge of doubling in size overnight. Those plans now appear to have collapsed for fear of “escalation”, despite Turkey having successfully delivered drones to Ukraine in recent days without incurring Russia’s supposed wrath.

Such questions had no place in today’s PMQs. After Starmer’s inquiries two Tory MPs expressed anguish over Ukraine’s fate, only to ask vapidly whether Johnson would ensure all was being done to assist Ukraine. Many in parliament appear to have resigned themselves to Ukraine’s fall rather than demanding Britain do more to prevent it. Could the UK be ramping up military aid yet further? Could No 10 be persuading its Nato allies (in Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia) that they will be protected if they provide Ukraine with the MiG-29 planes that Ukraine’s pilots can fly? Today offered no answers to the key questions, for they were never asked.

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