Sleaze row: Keir Starmer calls Boris Johnson ‘a coward not a leader’ during heated PMQ’s

Prime Minister’s Questions became heated as Boris Johnson was grilled over Owen Paterson scandal and MPs second jobs

Boris Johnson claimed the UK “was one of the cleanest democracies in the world” during a heated PMQ’s which saw him branded “a coward, not a leader”.

MPs second jobs and the sleaze row were at the forefront of the exchanges which saw Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer forced to withdraw a comment he made calling Mr Johnson a coward.

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A point of order was raised by a Conservative MP about the comment, with Sir Keir saying: “I withdraw it, but he’s no leader.”

Mr Johnson was also rebuked by the speaker after he tried to quiz Sir Keir.

At a glance: 5 key points

  • Prime Minister did not apologise over the Owen Paterson affair
  • Labour leader Keir Starmer said the PM was “not a leader”
  • Sir Keir had to withdraw a comment calling the PM a coward
  • Commons speaker rebuffed PM after Johnson attempted to question Labour leader
  • PM said a cross-party approach was the way forward
The debating chamber during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London.

What did Sir Keir say to the PM?

The Prime Minister did not apologise for the Owen Paterson affair but repeated it was a “mistake” to conflate the issue with reforming the standards process more generally.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said there is now agreement that Owen Paterson broke the rules and the Government “should not have tried to let him off the hook”.

He noted some members of Government have apologised and called on the Prime Minister to do the same, saying: “Will he do the decent thing and just say sorry for trying to give the green light to corruption?”

The Prime Minister said: “Well, yes, as I’ve said before it certainly was a mistake to conflate the case of an individual member – no matter how sad – with the point of principle at stake, and we do need a cross-party approach on an appeals process.

“We also need a cross-party approach on the way forward and that’s why we’ve tabled the proposals that we have.”

Sir Keir Starmer questioned if Boris Johnson would back an investigation into contracts given to Randox, the firm which paid Mr Paterson for lobbying work, or “vote for another cover-up”.

Mr Johnson replied he would be “very happy to publish” the details and it had been already investigated by the National Audit Office.

Sir Keir also said “everyone else had apologised” for the Prime Minister, saying: “A coward, not a leader. Weeks defending corruption. Yesterday a screeching last-minute U-turn to avoid defeat on Labour’s plan to ban MPs from dodgy second contracts.

“But waving one white flag won’t be enough to restore trust and there are plenty of opposition days to come, and we will not let the Prime Minister water down the proposals or pretend that it’s job done.

“We still haven’t shut the revolving door where ministers are regulating a company one minute, and working for them the next. There are plenty of cases that still stain this House.”

The Labour leader asked if the Prime Minister would back “proper independence and powers for the business appointments committee and banning these job swaps”.

The Prime Minister said: “I’ve called, and indeed you have called Mr Speaker, for a cross-party approach to this.

“What I think we need to do is work together on the basis of the independent report by the committee on standards in public life to take things forward, and indeed to address the appeals process.”

Later on Sir Keir said about Mr Johnson: “He led his troops through the sewers to cover up corruption and he can’t even say sorry. The truth is that beneath the bluster he still thinks it’s one rule for him and another for his mates.”

What else was said?

Mr Johnson said the UK is one of the “cleanest democracies in the world” after SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford accused him of being at “the rotten core” of the sleaze scandals.

Mr Blackford told MPs: “This is about Tory sleaze and the Prime Minister has basically admitted that not one of these Government’s sleaze scandals would have been stopped by the so-called plan. And, perhaps, we shouldn’t be surprised considering the Prime Minister has been at the rotten core of all these scandals.

“The trail of sleaze and scandal all leads back to the funding of the Conservative Party. Since 2010, the Tory Party has made nine of its former treasurers members of the House of Lords. Every single of them has something in common: they have handed over £3 million to the Prime Minister’s party. That’s the very definition of corruption.

“It’s the public’s definition of corruption. Will this Government finally accept this is corruption or is the Prime Minister the only person in the country who has the brass neck to argue it was all one big coincidence?”

Mr Johnson said: “I have to say that, you know, I won’t comment on the missing £600,000 from the SNP’s accounts.

“But I will say, in all sincerity, I think these constant attacks on the UK’s levels of corruption and sleaze do a massive disservice to billions of people around the world who genuinely suffer from governments that are corrupt and genuinely have no ability to scrutinise their MPs.

“This is one of the cleanest democracies in the world and people should be proud of that.”

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

Why did the speaker clash with PM?

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle repeatedly clashed with Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister attempted to question Sir Keir Starmer about any links with law firm Mishcon de Reya.

Sir Lindsay told Mr Johnson: “I don’t want to fall out about it, I’ve made it very clear – it is Prime Minister’s Questions, it’s not for the Opposition to answer your questions.

“Whether we like it or not those are the rules of the game that we’re all into and we play by the rules, don’t we? And we respect this House, so let’s respect the House.”

After Mr Johnson attempted to ask again about the issue in a later exchange, the Speaker said: “Prime Minister, sit down. I’m not going to be challenged, you may be the Prime Minister of this country but in this House I’m in charge.”

Mr Johnson later accused Sir Keir of “Mish-conduct”, which prompted calls from the Labour benches for the comment to be withdrawn.

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