Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer clash over Russia report at PMQs

22 July 2020, 14:45

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Sir Keir Starmer has said he "won't take lectures on national security" from Boris Johnson during a heated clash about Russia at Prime Minister's Questions.

The Labour leader accused the Government of taking its eye off the ball regarding the threat posed by Russia to the UK's domestic affairs, adding the ball "wasn't even on the pitch."

Sir Keir asked the prime minister to explain why the Russia threat had been underestimated during the 10 years of the Conservatives being in power.

Mr Johnson argued there was no country that had done more to protect itself and that while he was foreign secretary he took "the strongest possible action" against Russia.

During the exchange, he claimed: "The right honourable gentleman opposite sat on his hands and said nothing while the Labour Party parroted the line of the Kremlin when people in this country were poisoned at the orders of Vladimir Putin."

Sir Keir replied: "I stood up and condemned what happened in Salisbury and... I supported then-prime minister (Theresa May) on record, so I'd ask the prime minister to check the record."

Read more: Boris Johnson denies he 'sat on' the Russia Report for ten months

During an appearance on the BBC's Question Time In 2018, the Labour leader described the attack in Salisbury as appalling and condemned it "without reservation," while also giving his "support" to Ms May.

In PMQs, Mr Johnson repeated the claim that Sir Keir failed to act following the poisoning, to which the Labour leader replied: "I was absolutely clear in condemning what happened in Salisbury.

"Not least because I was involved in bringing proceedings against Russia on behalf of the Litvinenko family, that is why I was so strong about it.

"I spent five years as Director of Public Prosecutions working on live operations with the security and intelligence services, so I'm not going to take lectures from the prime minister about national security."

Mr Johnson also denied he "sat on" the Russia Report for 10 months, following Tuesday's publication of a report by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) on Russia's activities in the UK.

Sir Keir asked the UK leader: "It (the report) concludes that Russia poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security and is engaged in a range of activities that includes espionage, interfering in democratic processes and serious crime.

"The Prime Minister received that report 10 months ago. Given that the threat is described as immediate and urgent why on earth did the Prime Minister sit on that report for so long?"

Mr Johnson told the Commons when he was foreign secretary he took "the strongest possible action" against Russia and orchestrated the expulsion of 153 Russian diplomats around the world.

He also denied Russian interference was responsible for the outcome of the 2016 referendum on Europe where the UK backed Brexit, despite politicians concluding the Government failed to fully assess Moscow's influence.