PMQs Verdict: Starmer Says the Conservatives ‘can’t be trusted’ on Defence

Starmer calls out Boris Johnson's broken promises in another heated round of PMQs.

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FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives an update on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic during a virtual news conference inside 10 Downing Street, in central London, Britain, March 18, 2021. Tolga Akmen/Pool via REUTERS

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Round one: Army cuts

WESTMINSTER (Labour Buzz) - Starmer opened by going all-in on armed forces. Why, he asked, did the Prime Minister promise to maintain armed forces at the current levels but then cut them. He referred to the admission from defence secretary Ben Wallace, who admits troops will be reduced to 72,000 by 2025.

Johnson answered quickly saying he made the promise because he intended to keep that promise before sniping back that Starmer stood behind a man who wanted to come out of NATO. 

Score. Johnson will have been delighted to see Starmer coming onto his own pitch. He and his supporters will have thought he scored a nice easy point on this one. To those watching he may have been right.  

Round two: The army again

Starmer came back with it. Was Johnson saying, he asked that reducing the size of the army by 10,000 is not a cut? 

What did he do this week? He cut the number of armed forces by 10,000, he cut the number of tanks, he cut the number of planes for the RAF and he cut the number of cuts for the Royal Navy. I say he, but he didn’t even have the courage to come to the house himself and say what he was doing. 

He asked a simple question: “did he ever intend to keep his promise to the armed forces.”

“Not only did we keep our promise we actually increased spending by 14% more than that commitment,” Johnson claimed  

He pointed at Lisa Nandy’s comments that the entire British army should be turned into a peace corp. 

The leader of the opposition tried to elect a leader who wanted to disband the armed services. 

Score: The rule in this game is that any time one of them makes a false claim, it’s an instant penalty point here. At no point did Jeremy Corbyn want to disband the armed services. It’s a low blow and even though Starmer failed to pick him up on it, that’s an instant point off for Johnson. 

Round three: Promises, promises 

Tension was mounting and both men appeared pretty riled. “The Prime Minister,” Starmer said, “might want to avoid the promises he made, but I found an interview he gave during the general election.”

Under the headline ‘no troop cuts’, the article said the Tories promised to maintain the size of the armed forces. It then goes on to quote the PM as promising not to make new cuts to armed forces, maintain forces at the current level. 

“I know the government’s got form for making up quotes. Does he think the papers misquoted him or does he now remember that promise?” 

Johnson insisted that there would be no redundancies in the armed forces and claimed that he would be keeping the army at 100,000 if you count reservists. He then claimed the Tories were modernising the armed forces 

Round 4: Playing with the numbers. 

Starmer shot back accusing the Prime Minister of ‘playing with the numbers’. To the outrage of the Conservatives, he said, they couldn’t be trusted with our armed forces. 

He ran through promises in 2015, 2017 and 2019 to maintain the size of the regular armed forces. 

Since 2010 armed forces have been cut by 45,000. It will be cut to its lowest level in 300 years.

He quoted the former chief of Defence Staff Lord Richards as a warning that with current numbers we would not be able to retake the Falklands or stop genocide. 

“After 10 years of Conservative government, is he not ashamed of that?” He asked.   

Johnson was clearly flustered and resorted to aiming attacks by Labour. Being confronted with ten years of failure on defence appeared to have caught him off guard and he had very little to come back with. 

Score: A big solid point for Starmer. The Tories love to think of defence as their territory, but the numbers don’t support it. Like every other sector, ten years of austerity have taken their toll and left the country struggling to defend itself. 

Round 5. Broken promises 

Sensing he had his opponent on the ropes, Starmer went on the attack, savaging the Prime Minister with body blows recalling his broken promises to just about everyone. 

He’d promised the NHS would have everything they needed but cut nurse’s pay in real terms. 

He’d brought in tax rises against his promises and now he’d gone back on his word on defence spending. 

He challenged the Prime Minister to put the bill to a vote. It’s a vote which even some of his MPs doubt would be winnable. 

Johnson went blustered his way back, claiming Labour MPs had been out on the streets shouting ‘kill the bill.’

It got a cheer from his MPs but a rebuke from the speaker. As always, any intervention from the speaker about false accusations results in another penalty point. 

Score: Another point to Starmer. 

Round 6. British Steel. 

The final question focused on the jobs currently at risk at Liberty Steel. Starmer attacked Johnson for failing to protect the British Steel industry. Curiously he then stole a line from some of the more extreme wings of the political spectrum by demanding Johnson ‘put British steel first’. 

Johnson’s answer was a good one. He pointed out that steel output halved under the last Labour administration and said there would soon be enormous opportunities through the £640bn infrastructure campaign. Thanks to leaving the EU he said, the government would be able to prioritise British companies. 

Score: This will go down as a point to Johnson as he managed to claim the Government would be supporting the steel industry and blamed its failure to do so until now on the EU. That's not exactly true and we can treat any promise from Johnson on future commitments to the industry as having as much worth as the paper they are not written on. However, it will probably have played well to the audience. 

PMQs verdict 

Starmer can be frustration. As always he was right on the facts. You also have to admire the courage of going in on territory which has usually been considered Tory dominated. He is right to point out that the Conservatives, despite their rhetoric, have a dreadful track record on defence. Ten years with them at the helm have been catastrophic. 

Will it cut through? It’s questionable. The people who fetishise defence are also the kind of people who fetishise flags. They don’t generally respond to facts, figures or common sense. Although Starmer is correct, it’s questionable whether he can succeed in eroding the core support from under the Tories. 

Meanwhile, he leaves a gaping hole to his left, which others such as the SNP are only too happy to fill. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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