Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer stressed Parliamentary unity in today’s PMQs session, repeatedly refusing to partake in the usual mud-slinging of the House of Commons, amid the current crisis in Ukraine.
The session was heavily focused on the situation in Ukraine, as well as the British sanctions imposed on Russia, and Russian influence in UK politics and media.
It was also the first PMQs in many weeks in which neither Keir Starmer nor the SNP’s Commons leader, Ian Blackford, called for the Prime Minister’s resignation.
Starmer stuck resolutely to his line that the house must remain united in the face of Russia’s deployment of troops to the so-called breakaway states of Donetsk and Luhansk. He said that he supported the sanctions already enacted by the UK but that more could, and should be done. The Prime Minister insisted that holding further sanctions in reserve was important so that the UK would have another card up its sleeve should the situation devolve further.
“We’re not dealing with breakaway republics. Putin is not a peacekeeper. A sovereign nation has been invaded. the Prime Minister promised that in the event of an invasion he would unleash a full package of sanctions. If not now, then when?
“[Putin] seeks division. We must stay united. He hopes for inaction. So we must take a stand. He believes that we’re too corrupted to do the right thing. We must prove him wrong.”
In response, Johnson said:
“We’ve sanctioned 275 individuals already. Yesterday we placed banks worth £37bn under sanctions in addition to more oligarchs. And there is more to come.”
“He is right that it is absolutely vital that the UK must stand United.”
“We’ve been instrumental in bringing the Western world together to deal with the problem, to bring together the economic package of sanctions that I have set out.”
“There is still time for President Putin to de-escalate. What is at stake, be at absolutely no doubt, is not just democracy in Ukraine, but the principle of democracy around the world. And that is why the unity of this house is so important today, and that it is absolutely vital that the United Kingdom stands together against aggression in Ukraine.”
Starmer said that it was very important to uncover Russian oligarchs’ discreet investments and donations into UK business and politics, and that, for that purpose, the Economic Crime Bill should be brought before the house as quickly as possible. He promised that – should the bill be brought before the house in the next few days – Labour would support it, but urged the Prime Minister to consider amendments put forward by the opposition that would further inhibit foreign donations to politicians.
Keir Starmer also suggested that the Russia Today TV channel should be investigated by OFCOM, to which Johnson replied that the Culture Secretary had already instructed OFCOM to do so.
Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP in the Commons, while not calling on the PM to resign, did not strike the same conciliatory tone as Starmer.
“We shouldn’t be waiting for Russia to attack others to clean up the Russian money and corruption that has been fuelling politics in the UK. Under the tories a sewer of dirty Russian money has been allowed to run through London for years.”
“The truth is that Russian oligarchs, who give the right people in power a golden handshake, have been welcomed into London for years. Their activities weren’t stopped; they were encouraged! Plenty of these golden handshakes just so happened to find their way into the coffers of the Conservative Party. £2.3 million since the Prime Minister took office.”
“A leading American think-tank has publicly raised concerns about the close ties between Russian money and the UK’s leading Conservative Party [acting as] a block to stronger sanctions. How can our allies trust this Prime Minister to clean up dirty Russian money when he won’t even clean up his own political party?”
Boris Johnson insisted that laws are in place that meant that only those on the UK electoral register are able to donate to UK political parties. However, many properties in London are owned and used by millionaires and billionaires around the world for the purpose of tax avoidance, as is shown clearly in the publication of the Pandora Papers last year.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved, land, property and wealth previously owned and managed by the government was privatised into the hands of a few individuals with close ties to Yeltsin and government officials, creating a handful of Russian individuals with inordinate amounts of wealth.
The prime minister was also heavily criticised following PMQs for stating that the Labour Party’s biggest donor was the Chinese Communist Party – an untrue claim based on the money donated to Labour MP Barry Gardiner by Christine Lee, a CPC official. Downing Street later clarified the remarks, but it marks another untrue statement by Johnson at the despatch box, just weeks after he repeated an untrue conspiracy theory about Jimmy Savile.