Keir Starmer forced to retract ‘cowardly’ insult to Boris Johnson during testy PMQs

Labor leader Keir Starmer has been forced to retract comments calling Boris Johnson a “coward, not a leader” after a rebuke from the chairman.

During a fiery and moody session of questions from the prime minister, Starmer called on Johnson to apologize for his handling of the Owen Paterson scandal, in which the government sought to reverse the former minister’s sentence and pay lobbyist.

The Labor leader pointed out that while the Company Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, and the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, had both apologized for their role in the affair, Johnson had yet to do the same.

“Across the country and late in this house, there is now agreement that Owen Paterson broke the rules and the government shouldn’t have tried to knock him off the hook,” Starmer said.

“Many members across the street have apologized. The business secretary has apologized. The House Leader has apologized for his part, but they followed the Prime Minister’s lead.

“So will he do the decent thing and just say sorry for trying to give the green light to corruption?”

Johnson replied that it was “certainly a mistake” to confuse the standards reform with Paterson’s case before challenging Starmer’s former gainful employment with the law firm Mishcon de Reya.

Starmer hit back: “That’s no apology. Everyone has apologized for him, but he won’t apologize for himself.”

He continued: “A coward, not a leader. Weeks defending corruption. Yesterday a whooping last-minute U-turn to avert a defeat to Labor’s plan to bar MPs from dodgy second contracts.

“But waving one white flag is not enough to restore confidence.”

Starmer’s unusually strong language was seized upon by Tory MP Michael Fabricant, who used a point of order to urge the Labor leader to withdraw his comment.

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle noted, “Coward is not what is used in this House.”

Starmer replied, “I retract it, but he is not a leader.”

During the session, the speaker repeatedly expressed anger at the mood and harsh language in the House, especially in the wake of the death of Tory MP David Amess and the conversation it sparked about language in politics.

Hoyle also clashed with Johnson over his attempts to question Starmer’s ties to Mishcon de Reya. Starmer turned down a second job at the law firm in the summer of 2017 after allegations that it conflicted with his role as shadow Brexit secretary.

Hoyle told the Prime Minister: “I don’t want to argue about it, I’ve made it very clear – it’s the Prime Minister’s questions, it’s not up to the opposition to answer your questions.

“Like it or not, those are the rules of the game that we all love and we play by the rules, aren’t we? And we respect this House, so let’s respect the House.”

Despite the reprimand, Johnson tried to ask about the matter again in a later conversation, to which the speaker said, “Prime Minister, sit down!

“I will not be challenged, you may be the Prime Minister of this country, but in this House I am in charge.”

Johnson later accused Starmer of “felony,” a play on words that sparked outrage from the Labor banks.

At the end of the session, Hoyle deplored the behavior of MPs and said the House had done nothing right today.

“I’ll be very honest, I think it’s in a bad mood, I think it shows the public that this House hasn’t learned from last week, I need this House to gain respect, but it starts with individuals who show respect for each other,” he said.

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