LONDON

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was pressed by the leader of the opposition in the parliament on Wednesday about the government’s policy on Russia following a long-awaited report on Moscow’s interference in British politics.

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said “Under my leadership, national security will always be a top priority for our country.”

“The government took its eyes off the ball, arguably it wasn’t even on the pitch,” he said, while Johnson said: “There is no country in the western world that is more vigilant in protecting the interests of this country from Russian interference.”

Starmer said the report was “extremely serious”, and asked Johnson why, given that the threat was “immediate and urgent,” the prime minister “sat on the report for so long” and delayed its publication by 10 months.

Johnson hit back saying Starmer failed to condemn Russia’s 2018 chemical attack in Salisbury where a former military officer was killed, which is factually incorrect as a video footage of Starmer’s denunciation of the attack was subsequently shared around social media. So Starmer told Johnson to take back his claim.

Starmer said it was “clear” the British government underestimated the threat from Russia. He asked why that was the case, after a decade in power for the ruling Conservative party.

Johnson claimed the UK “leads the world in caution about Russian interference.”

Under pressure, Johnson then claimed the opposition was seeking to use the Russia report to undermine Brexit. He also claimed that this Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum did not exist. The opposition had not mentioned Brexit up until that point.

Unimpressed, Starmer said Johnson was “already on his pre-prepared lines.”

Starmer also asked if Johnson would look again at Russia Today’s license to operate in the UK, to which Johnson asked why he had not called out his predecessor – Jeremy Corbyn – for appearing on and taking money from the Russian TV broadcaster.

Johnson accused Starmer of “flip-flopping from day to day” and having “more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach.”

“This is the former columnist who wrote two versions of every article ever published,” Starmer hit back.

Starmer said: “Unless the PM hasn’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.”

The leader of the opposition then asked the prime minister about the widespread abuses suffered by Uighur Muslims in China, and whether he would consider sanctions against Chinese officials. Johnson said the foreign minister had condemned the treatment of Uighurs.

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