Boris Johnson vs Keir Starmer: We’ve scored the leaders on today’s PMQs… here’s how they did

Harriet Brewis
Wednesday 24 March 2021 16:38
Politics

Prime Minister’s Questions is widely known as an arena for political point scoring which invariably sees the PM and leader of the opposition locked in a war of words.

Today’s battle was all about the Army, with Sir Keir Starmer repeatedly grilling Boris Johnson on cuts to the number of troops, while the PM blasted his Labour counterpart’s “new spirit of jingo”.

So in this messy duel of jibes and insults, who should be crowned victor?

We’ve picked out some key moments from today’s session in the House of Commons to do some point-scoring of our own...

‘He’s fighting the last war’ –8/10 for Sir Keir

Sir Keir launched his assault on cuts to the armed forces in light of the recent decision to reduce the Army’s size by 10,000 troops to 72,500 by 2025.

Beginning his questioning, the Labour leader asked why, during the 2019 election, Johnson pledged that he would not cut the UK’s armed forces in “any form”.

The PM replied: “That was because what we were going to do was actually increase spending on our armed services by the biggest amount since the Cold War – £24 billion modernising our armed forces, with no redundancies, keeping our Army at 100,000 if you include the reserves.”

Johnson added that Sir Keir “stood on a manifesto to elect a man who wanted to pull this country out of Nato” – a reference to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Nodding towards his opponent Sir Keir countered spicily: “He’s fighting the last war.”

We’re awarding a strong eight out of 10 to Sir Keir for this for two reasons: one because the PM should know that pillorying your opponent’s predecessor is no way to win a battle; and two, because Sir Keir – who isn’t necessarily known for his comic turns – drew peals of laughter for his retort.

‘They don’t like it up ’em’ - 3/10 for Johnson

Responding to the PM’s insistence that the Government will be “keeping our Army at 100,000,” Sir Keir Starmer said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was “absolutely clear” about the planned reduction of troop numbers.

“Only this Prime Minister could suggest a reduction from 82,000 to 72,000 is somehow not a cut.

“But the Prime Minister didn’t answer my question, which is why did he make that promise?”

He continued: “What did he do this week? He cut the British Army by 10,000, he cut the number of tanks, he cut the number of planes for our RAF and he cut the number of ships for the Royal Navy.”

The PM replied that the Conservatives not only “kept our promise in the manifesto” but also increased defence spending by 14 per cent more than their manifesto commitment.

He added: “I think it’s frankly satirical to be lectured about the size of the size of the Army when the shadow foreign secretary (Lisa Nandy) herself only recently wrote that the entire British Army should be turned into a kind of peace corps.”

Ending his tirade, he said: “It’s wonderful to hear the new spirit of jingo that seems to have enveloped the Labour benches but they don’t like it up ’em, Mr Speaker.”

We’re giving Johnson a somewhat dispiriting three out of 10 for that one. Firstly, because he deflected the question about cuts again by giving another answer about spending, and secondly because quoting 1970’s sitcom Dad’s Army doesn’t exactly feed into his narrative about modernising the armed forces.

Although a number of Tory MPs did enjoy the reference, to be sure.

‘I know the Prime Minister has got form for making up quotes’ - 6/10 for Sir Keir

Rifling through his notes, Sir Keir then brought up a headline from two years ago which read: "No troop cuts: Tories will maintain size of armed forces."

“The Prime Minister might want to avoid the promises he made but I’ve found an interview he gave during the general election campaign,” the Labour leader said.

“It goes on to quote the Prime Minister – ‘Boris Johnson has promised that he will not make any new cuts to the armed forces’, he also promised he also promised to maintain numbers at their current level.”

Sir Keir ended the attack: “Now I know the Prime Minister has got form for making up quotes, but can he tell us – does he think the newspapers have somehow misquoted him or does he now remember making that promise?”

Social media users have seized on this dig, but it earns the Labour leader a 6/10 in our books. He’s already taking the PM to task using facts and evidence – making a petty accusation that the PM likes to “make up” quotes is beneath him at this stage.

Read more:

‘The Prime Minister is just playing with the numbers’ - 9/10 to Sir Keir

As Johnson continued to insist that the Government would be “keeping the Army at 100,000” – including reservists – Sir Keir accused him of “playing with the numbers.”

“He knows very well that the numbers have been cut,” the Labour leader continued.

“The trouble is, you just can’t trust the Conservatives to protect our armed forces.”

Sir Keir then used his notes again to cite Tory manifesto pledges dating back more than five years.

“The 2015 manifesto – ‘we will maintain the size of the regular armed services’,” he quoted.

“The 2017 manifesto – ‘we will maintain the overall size of the armed forces’, 2019 – the Prime Minister – ‘we will not be cutting our armed services in any form’.

“But the truth is, since 2010 our armed forces have been cut by 45,000 and our Army will now be cut to its lowest level in 300 years.”

We think Sir Keir earns a forceful nine out of 10 for that one for his meticulous research. If you’re going to accuse someone of fiddling the numbers, make sure you have the evidence to back it up – and he did.

[Labour] are out on the streets at ‘Kill the Bill’ protests – 0/10 for Boris Johnson

Accused of cutting pay for nurses and raising taxes for families, as well as cutting the armed forces, Johnson hit back by stressing: “I’m proud of what we’re doing to increase spending on the armed forces by the biggest amount since the Cold War.

“The only reason we can do that, Mr Speaker, is because we’ve been running a sound economy, and it’s also because we believe in defence.”

Getting increasingly impassioned, he continued: “We’ve been getting on with the job. [Sir Keir] talks about nurses and investment in the NHS, I’m proud of the massive investment we’ve made in the NHS and actually we have 60,000 more nurses now in training and we’ve increased their starting salary by 12.8 per cent.

“We’re getting on with the job of recruiting more police – 20,000 more police. I think we’ve done 7,000 already.”

Then, pointing at the Labour benches he added: “While they’re out on the streets at demonstrations shouting ‘Kill the Bill’.

“That’s the difference between his party and my party. We’re pro-vax, we’re low tax and when it comes to defence, we’ve got your backs.”

Police hold back protesters during the ‘Kill the Bill’ clashes

(Andrew Matthews/PA)

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle then paused proceedings to sound a note of caution.

“Can I just say – I genuinely mean this – I do not believe any Member of Parliament would support that ‘Kill the Bill’,” he said.

“I’ve got to be very careful… I say we are all united in this House in the support and the protection that the police do offer us and nobody would shy away from that.”

We’re not handing the PM any points for this blind accusation. The “Kill the Bill” protests in Bristol saw 40 officers and a member of the media injured in violent clashes with protesters.

To suggest members of the opposition would condone or participate in violence against public servants is a step too far.

So Sir Keir’s the champion of today’s PMQs?

By our count, yes. Meanwhile, here’s how Twitter has responded to what was, by all accounts, a fiery session:

There’s always next week, Prime Minister.

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