24 March 2021 | ANALYSIS
“I just wondered who’d be the first to spot that,” Captain Mainwaring often told his Home Guard platoon in Dad’s Army when they pointed out flaws or mistakes in his plans.
However, in today’s political skirmish against Sir Keir Starmer, Mainwaring’s desperate catchphrase would be equally attributable to the Prime Minister’s sub-par response to the recent Defence Review.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace set out how this review would increase funding for the armed forces to invest in cyber and AI. The measures will result in the Army’s workforce being reduced to its smallest size since 1714.
Nonetheless, Johnson entered the chamber with an advantage over the Leader of the Opposition. Defence has long been considered a weak wicket for the Labour Party. Unlike Starmer’s open goal on nurses’ pay, viewers could be mistaken for thinking the Labour leader was freeing himself up for a broadside shot from Boris.
But the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service had other ideas. Starmer was not going to be caught up in debates about party political history. Instead, he would utilise the issue of defence to cast doubt on the Prime Minister’s trustworthiness.
“Why did the Prime Minister promise that we would not be cutting our armed services in any form?” Starmer opened.
The Prime Minister then told the Commons that Britain would “actually increase spending on our armed services by the biggest amount since the Cold War” and added that £24 billion would be spent on “modernising” the military.
“He stood on a manifesto”, Johnson continued, “to elect a man [Jeremy Corbyn] who wanted to pull our country out of NATO!”
Starmer then, with delivery more akin to a stand-up comic than a forensic former lawyer, quipped: “Mr Speaker, he’s fighting the last war.”
The Leader of the Opposition then went for it.
Starmer cited an interview the Prime Minister gave to The Sun before the 2019 election, in which Johnson said “we will not be cutting our armed services in any form”, to berate the Tories’ decision to cut the Army’s personnel by 10,000 and to reduce the number of military vehicles.
The Labour leader continued to prod and poke when he asked: “Did he ever intend to keep his promise to our armed forces?”
Unfortunately for Mr Johnson, he was then accused of “playing with the numbers” on reservists and even supporting measures that would make it difficult to protect the Falkland Islands.
On the back-foot, the Prime Minister was forced to deploy one of the most cringeworthy lines recently touted in the Commons chamber when he said: “We’re pro-vax, we’re low tax, and when it comes to defence, we’ve got your backs.”
But Boris should have just directly quoted from Captain Mainwaring, who, when knocked off his feet batting against a fast-pace bowler, declared: “He’s not bowling at the stumps, he’s bowling at me.”
“There’s a pattern here, Mr Speaker,” Starmer explained. “He promised the NHS they would have, quote, ‘whatever they need’ – now, nurses are getting a pay cut. He promised a tax guarantee; now, he’s putting taxes up for families. He promised he wouldn’t cut the armed forces; now, he’s done just that.”
From today’s show, one might perhaps conclude that Labour’s electoral playbook appears to be an assault on trust and competence, rather than featuring any actual policy-based alternatives.
Whilst the nation continues to fight against coronavirus, Starmer’s performance has shown that there are a series of electoral contests on the horizon. With Wales and Hartlepool both in play, Starmer’s patriotic performance looked like a clear call to the Red Wall.
Even during a pandemic, we mustn’t forget: “This is a war, you know!”