PMQs Starmer goes all in on Yemen

With thoughts and minds turning to the upcoming budget, Sir Keir Starmer focused all his fire on the current conflict in Yemen.

FILE PHOTO: British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks during a question period at the House of Commons in London, Britain February 3, 2021. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

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LONDON (Labour Buzz) - Earlier in the week, the UK announced it would slash its aid to Yemen, something which the UN Secretary-General described as a death sentence for starving children. At the same time, they have been a keen seller of arms to Saudi Arabia as organising a secretive project training Saudi armed forces. 

In February the Guardian reported that the UK had sold £1.6bn since exports had begun. One of Joe Biden’s first acts in power has been to suspend arms sales to Riyadh. Britain had resumed arms sales in July after concluding the Saudis only occasionally killed civilians. 

The US has also publicly blamed Saudi Araba for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in an intelligence report.

Data suggests thousands of civilians have been killed in the bombing campaign, a quarter of them being women and children. 

Starmer, to Johnson’s obvious surprise, decided to focus all his questions on Yemen.

He opened up by asking if the Prime Minister agreed with Joe Biden that the sale of arms in Yemen should be suspended. 

Johnson answered curtly that the UK has followed consolidated guidance of which he is well aware. 

Score: No real blow from either.

Yemen pt2

Starmer followed up by reminding the world that the UK hasn’t suspended arms that can be used in Yemen. 

“Given everything we know about the humanity cost of this war,” he said, “why does the PM think it’s right to be selling these weapons?” 

Johnson stuck to his guns that the UK is part of an international coalition that sticks to UN resolutions. The UK, he said, could be ‘proud’ of what we’re doing to support the people of Yemen.

Score: That the UK can be proud of its role in Yemen seems odd unless you go with the Rees Mogg attitude that people are generally happier when they are being bombed by British made bombs. 

Yemen part 3 

Starmer pointed out that the UK is increasingly isolated in selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Despite causing the greatest humanitarian catastrophe on the planet and despite being implicated in the murder of a journalist, he wanted to know what it would take for Johnson to suspend those sales.

Johnson waffled that he condemned the murder and had called for an investigation into the causes of his death. 

Score: A point to Starmer. Another odd reply from Johnson, especially since it runs at odds with the attitude of the UK’s closest ally the US.  

Round four: Death sentence

Starmer took us back to the UN Secretary General’s warning that cutting this aid would be a death sentence to the people of Yemen. “How can he justify selling arms to Saudi Arabia and cutting aid to Yemen.” 

Johnson argued that current circumstances mean that ‘temporarily we must reduce aid spending’. When it comes to the people of Yemen few countries in the world have a record like ours. 

Score: This is true. There aren’t many countries that have done so much to help the Saudis cause one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the world, like the UK. However, the argument that the money should be better spent at home might well cut through with the wider electorate, so Johnson will probably get a point here. 

Yemen again

Starmer then brought up the Prime Minister’s own MPs including the MP for Bournemouth East, Tobias Ellwood who said: “cutting support to starving children is not what Global Britain should be about,” or Andrew Mitchell who said it was ‘unconscionable’.  

It was more of the same from Johnson, ignoring the question and waffling on that the people of Britain should feel proud. 

Score: A point for Starmer with even some of Johnson’s MPs looking visibly uncomfortable. 

And finally….

Starmer summed up with ‘Britain should be a moral force for good but as the US is stepping up the UK is stepping back. He challenged Johnson to put it to a vote in parliament. 

Instead, Johnson played up to his base with a little dog-whistle racism thrown in for good measure. The UK government, he said, will get on with ‘our agenda of helping people in this country’.

“Given the difficulties this country is facing the people of this country will think we’ve got our priorities right.”

He then went on to attack Starmer for using all his questions on Yemen rather than the people of his own country. It was a snide nod and a wink effectively saying “he cares more about brown people over there than white people over here. 

“You will shortly,” he said, “be hearing a budget for recovery,” something which prompted speaker Lindsey Hoyle to joke. “I think I’ve heard most of it already.”

PMQs verdict 

This was a curious PMQs. The Conservatives did not appear to be expecting any questions on Yemen, let alone the whole session. Johnson appeared somewhat taken aback. 

Instinctively he will have felt pleased. There’s nothing his base likes more than cutting foreign aid and they will have loved every word. 

Starmer, though, appears to be playing a longer game. In focusing on Yemen, he is at last giving the left of the party something to get their teeth in. At the same time, he wove it into his wider narrative of a Britain which is a force for good. That’s a sense of national pride that might appeal to many sitting on the right as well as those sitting on the left. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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