With attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and ‘Islingtonian Remainers’ seeking to block Brexit, the PM today decided to party like it’s 2019
The prime minister was in bullish form as he surveyed his enemies opposite, attacking them on every flank. With the Russia report dominating almost every front page he took aim at Jeremy Corbyn, who, following the Salisbury attacks ‘parroted the line of the Kremlin when people in this country were poisoned at the orders of Vladimir Putin’. He imputed the motives of the opposition for raising the report, damning them as ‘Islingtonian Remainers’ determined to trap Britain in the EU while the people want ‘to take back control of our money, our trade policy and our laws’. He was, in short, pumping himself up for the 2019 general election.
Except – wasn’t that seven months ago? And hasn’t Brexit been done? I’m sure it has: there’s an advert on a bus shelter on my street saying so, and advising me to ‘check, change, go,’ whatever that means. And that’s not Corbyn there anymore. He’s taken his cap and vanished, replaced by this chap with an electric-blue suit and apparent grasp of the facts.
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No matter, though. Because Boris Johnson is the kid who reached level two of a video game, found it considerably harder, so went back and played level one again. He’s fighting the opponent he wished were there, rather than the one who is.
Starmer pointed out that Johnson received the Russia 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?,’ he asked.
Claiming he took ‘the strongest possible action’ against Russia during his stint as foreign secretary he claimed Starmer had ‘sat on his hands and said nothing’ while Corbyn was calling for samples of the chemical to be sent to Vladimir Putin for testing.
Starmer 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.’ He’s right, of course: seconds later a Question Time clip of him doing exactly that was doing the rounds on Twitter quicker than a video of a hedgehog in a hat.
Starmer went on to ask about delays in bringing forward new security legislation, to which Johnson briefly alluded to new laws coming in connection with espionage, theft of intellectual property and sanctions.
But then he went full-on, foam-flecked mad. ‘Let’s be in no doubt what this is really all about – this is about pressure from the Islingtonian Remainers who have seized on this report to try to give the impression that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit.
‘That’s what this is all about. The people of this country didn’t vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia or Russian interference, they voted because they wanted to take back control of our money, our trade policy and our laws.’ Starmer of course had very deliberately not sought to link the report to Brexit. He very deliberately didn’t mention the referendum. That Johnson assumed he would, and delivered his riposte despite the fact, both made clear his lack of adaptability and also achieve the feat of looking less statesmanlike than Donald Trump in the previous evening’s rebooted Covid conference.
Starmer said Johnson should ‘look again’ at the licensing for broadcaster RT, formerly Russia Today, to operate in the UK. Johnson said Starmer should have called out Corbyn ‘when he took money for appearing on Russia Today’ (which it’s not clear he did), adding: ‘The leader of the opposition has more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach.’ Following last week’s ‘more briefs than Calvin Klein’ it appears the prime minister – whose, lest we forget, so-called unrivalled wit used to earn him £275,000 from the Telegraph – is now channelling the late Jim Bowen.
Following a brief interlude where a miscounting of Starmer’s questions saw newbie Alexander Stafford (Con, Rother Valley) called to embarrass himself with a question about the ‘Brexit bonanza’ about to reach his constituents, Starmer rose for the final time this session.
‘In case the prime minister hadn’t noticed, the Labour Party is under new management and no frontbencher of this party has appeared on Russia Today since I’ve been leading this party,’ he said. Under new management! It was like Bob Dylan picking up his electric guitar at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Judas, Len McCluskey may have shouted, but nobody’s listening now.
And with that, and barring some real end-of-term, bring-the-games-in questions about Winnie-the-Pooh and Luton Town Football Club, Johnson v Starmer Season One came to an end. It is with some regret I have to inform you Season Two drops in September.