Boris Johnson has accused Keir Starmer of saying “nothing” when Jeremy Corbyn failed to unequivocally condemn Russia for the 2018 Salisbury poisonings.
In fact, Sir Keir publicly followed Theresa May’s line in blaming Russia for the incident and backed her actions as Prime Minister in a television appearance.
Sir Keir, then Shadow Brexit Secretary, did not criticise Mr Corbyn directly in the House of Commons speech after his controversial speech on Salisbury, as some Labour backbenchers did.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions today, Mr Johnson said the Labour leader “sat on his hands and said nothing while the Labour party parroted the line of the Kremlin, when people in this country were poisoned on the orders of Vladimir Putin”.
Sir Keir replied: “I stood up and condemned what happened in Salisbury, and I supported the then Prime Minister on record. I would ask the Prime Minister to check the record and withdraw that.”
Mr Johnson replied: “I do not wish to contradict him, but he sat on his hands and said nothing. The previous Leader of the Opposition parroted the line of the Kremlin that the UK should supply… I did not hear him criticise the previous Leader of the Opposition.”
The Corbyn speech
Theresa May addressed the House of Commons on Wednesday March 14, 2018, ten days after the former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a “novichok” nerve agent in Salisbury.
The Conservative Prime Minister told MPs: “There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter.”
But Mr Corbyn, then Leader of the Opposition, did not echo her in blaming the regime of President Vladimir Putin for the attack, and his official spokesman later drew a comparison with the faulty intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq.
Mr Corbyn provoked audible anger from around the House of Commons when he asked Mrs May “how has she responded to the Russian Government’s request for a sample of the agent used in the Salisbury attack to run their own tests”.
This is a likely candidate for what Mr Johnson had in mind when he talked about Labour “parrot(ing) the line of the Kremlin”.
Unlike other party leaders, Mr Corbyn did not commit to work with the Conservative government as it shaped its response to the Salisbury attack.
A string of Labour backbenchers emphatically backed Mrs May over Mr Corbyn. Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said Russia’s actions “must be met with unequivocal condemnation”.
Pat McFadden said: “Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership. There is a Labour tradition that understands that.”
John Woodcock, a notable critic of Mr Corbyn, said: “This is a day for the House to speak as one for the nation. The Prime Minister will be reassured to hear that a clear majority of Labour MPs, alongside the leaders of every other party, support her firm stance.”
It’s right to say that Keir Starmer did not get to his feet to criticise Mr Corbyn on that day in the Commons (in fact, it’s not clear from video footage whether he was in the chamber or not).
But it would be extremely unusual for a shadow cabinet member to get to stand up and contradict or criticise the leader of the opposition from the front bench.
Sir Keir also did not add his name to an early day motion put forward by Labour backbenchers stating that the House of Commons “unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability” for the poisonings.
Again, it would have been politically very difficult for a shadow cabinet member to add their name to a motion that would have embarrassed the Labour leader, sponsored by some of his most prominent critics.
Sir Keir did set out his disagreement with Jeremy Corbyn in an appearance on the BBC’s Question Time the day after Mr Corbyn’s speech in the Commons.
He said the Salisbury attack “deserves to be condemned by all of us without reservation – without reservation”.
Sir Keir said Mrs May had come to the conclusion that the Russian state was responsible after the Putin regime failed to answer detailed questions from London about the attack. Other countries had accepted that Moscow was the culprit.
He said: “That is the right conclusion, and for that reason, I think it is very important that we support the action the Prime Minister laid out on Wednesday.”
He said that he had done legal work for the family of Alexander Litvinenko, the victim of what another alleged Kremlin assassination plot on UK soil.
Sir Keir said: “This is not the first time. It needs to be called out with no ifs and no buts, and we need strong action, as set out by the Prime Minister on Wednesday.”
Sir Keir and two cabinet colleagues – Nia Griffiths and Emily Thornberry – all publicly stated that they believed Russia was behind the Salisbury attack within hours of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech.
The three made their beliefs clear in broadcast interviews, but stopped short of offering personal criticism of Mr Corbyn.
News outlets ran several stories on the apparent rift among Labour front-benchers on the issue, with Mr Corbyn increasingly isolated as his shadow cabinet members took a different line on Salisbury to their leader.
Keir Starmer made it clear that he supported Theresa May after she blamed the Russian government for the Salisbury novichok attack.
This put him at odds with Jeremy Corbyn and was widely reported at the time as a rift between senior Labour figures.
Mr Starmer did not immediately get to his feet to criticise Mr Corbyn when the then-Labour leader failed to fully back Theresa May in the Commons, as some Labour backbenchers did.
But that would have been an extremely unusual thing for a shadow cabinet member to have done.