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'Have the backbone': Keir Starmer challenges 'spineless' Rishi Sunak to call election next week

14 March 2024, 16:40 | Updated: 14 March 2024, 18:49

Watch Again: Lewis Goodall is joined by Keir Starmer

By Emma Soteriou

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called on Rishi Sunak to 'have the backbone' to call a general election next week.

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Speaking to LBC, Sir Keir said if people want to root out a "rotten approach to politics" and get rid of a "spineless" PM, they needed to elect a new government.

"Call [the election] next week, call it for May 2, the country overwhelmingly wants change," Sir Keir said.

"They want to put an end to 14 years of chaos and division and decline and have the chance to usher in a decade of national renewal.

"I say to the Prime Minister, call it. Have the backbone to call it. Allow this to go to a general election on May 2, we're ready.

"We’ve got a very positive case to put to the country and the sooner I can make that case the better."

It comes as the PM is facing criticism over a Tory donor's alleged 'racist' comments, with Sir Keir saying that Mr Sunak was facing a test and failing.

Frank Hester, a donor who has given £10m to the party, is claimed to have said that Diane Abbott made him "want to hate all black women" and that she "should be shot".

It has since been claimed that he has handed the party even more, with them “sitting on” £5m extra cash.

Sir Keir said if the claims were true, "it makes the situation worse".

Read more: Tory donor reveals he had to 'fight' for refund after £100,000 breakfast with Boris Johnson 'didn't materialise'

Read more: Rishi Sunak insists Tory donor's 'remorse should be accepted' amid racism row as he resists calls to give back £10m

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"It begins to give an explanation as to why Rishi Sunak will not hand this money back," Sir Keir said.

He added: "This is a significant contribution to their electoral campaign and he wont hand it back.

"This is the same Prime Minister who took it upon himself to do a broadcast, essentially walking into our living rooms, to parade as a unifier and a man that could bring people together.

"Amongst the comments, not just racist and misogynistic about Diane Abbott, this is a donor who said she should be shot.

"There’s only one answer to returning that money, it’s a test for Rishi Sunak, he’s failing that test, and if this report is true I think it raises serious questions about what his real motivation is in clinging on to that money in the current environment."

Shelagh Fogarty on Frank Hester's Diane Abbott remarks and donations

Addressing party funding, he said: "The debate about party funding has been going on a long time and it’s quite difficult, when the economy is as broken as it currently is, to make an argument for families and individuals who are suffering a cost of living crisis and can’t afford their bills to say there should be state funding for political parties.

"But that doesn’t mean that political parties shouldn’t put in place standards and requirements for donations that they accept.

"Yes, this donation’s been made, we now know that this is a man that uses racist and misogynistic language and says that Diane Abbott should be shot, that does not mean that Rishi Sunak has to say 'well, I must accept it' he could say the right thing to do is to return the money – it’s a tough decision but I’m going to take it."

Sir Keir said Mr Hester's apology was "for being rude" not "for being racist and misogynistic".

James O'Brien can't believe Diane Abbott wasn't called to speak in the Commons

The Labour leader also addressed calls to allow Ms Abbott back in the party, despite her previously losing the whip over a "pretty offensive" letter she wrote to The Observer.

He acknowledged that Ms Abbott had faced a lot of abuse, but also insisted that the issue could not be conflated with the ongoing investigation.

“The abuse against Diane Abbott that’s gone on for many, many years is abhorrent and Diane has suffered more abuse than any other MP – usually racist and misogynistic – but all sorts of abuse," Sir Keir said.

"She’s been a trailblazer as a black MP, paving the way for other people, and all that is to be applauded.

"There’s the separate question of what she said and the investigation into that which needs to be resolved - I don't think you can just conflate the two."

When asked why the investigation has taken so long, Sir Keir argued: "There are aspects to process which take time. It needs to be resolved and that is an independent process – it’s not my process and I’m not going to interfere with it because I think that’s a slippery slope."

He added: "Every case is different, they’re looking at a resolution. It was a pretty offensive letter – this wasn’t just a casual remark."

Read More: Kemi Badenoch labels Tory donor's comments ‘racist’ as Marcus Fysh calls on Sunak to ‘stand up for Diane’

Read More: Rishi Sunak insists Tory donor's 'remorse should be accepted' amid racism row as he resists calls to give back £10m

It comes as Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper refused to say whether Ms Abbott should be readmitted to the Parliamentary Labour Party.

"We have to recognise the immense work Diane has done through very many years: for her constituency, as part of the Labour Party, in terms of campaigner, and also in terms of the huge amount abuse she has wrongly had to face."

Ms Cooper said "as a shadow cabinet member" she "can't comment" on whether Ms Abbott should have the whip restored.

The Shadow Home Secretary, who succeeds Ms Abbott in her role, said it was "an independent process" that she should not be involved in.

Asked by LBC's Andrew Marr about Labour campaigning off the back of Mr Hester's "racist" comments to the now independent MP, Ms Cooper said: "I think you would be criticising everybody if we weren't standing up for Diane in the face of that appalling racism, and also challenging the Conservative Party about that racism, and the invoking of violence."

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