Boris Johnson has accused Keir Starmer of focusing on “trivia” and “pathetic lines of attack” after the Labour leader challenged him in the Commons on allegations of bullying in government, wasting taxpayers’ money and conflicts of interest.
In an often bad-tempered prime minister’s questions, Starmer referred to a foreword written by Johnson to the ministerial code – the rules of conduct in government – and accused Johnson of breaking a series of pledges within it.
The foreword said there must be no bullying or harassment, no leaking, no misuse of taxpayers’ money and no conflicts of interest, Starmer noted. “That’s five promises in two sentences. How many of those promises does the prime minister think his ministers have kept?”
After Johnson avoided the question, merely saying his ministers were “doing an outstanding job”, Starmer started to lead the PM through each promise in turn. He first asked Johnson why he had kept Priti Patel as home secretary, after a report by his independent adviser on standards – who later resigned – concluded that she had bullied staff.
“I make no apology for standing by a home secretary who is getting on with delivering the people’s priorities,” Johnson replied, adding that Patel had shown a “steely determination” in her work.
After Starmer then asked about what he called “serial leaking” on Covid restrictions, and suggested this was causing anxiety to the public, Johnson accused Starmer of concentrating on trivia.
Starmer then challenged Johnson on the amount of public money spent on personal protective equipment that could not be used. Johnson said Starmer was using “pathetic lines of attack”.
The prime minister added: “He just seems to be attacking the government for shifting heaven and earth, as we did, to get the medicines, to get the PPE, to get the equipment, to get the treatments that this country needed.”
Starmer asked Johnson about claims that contractors with government connections had been preferred for Covid-related contracts, and the appointment of friends and contacts to public roles.
“I think it’s a clean sweep: bullying, harassment, leaking, wasting public money, and obvious conflicts of interest,” Starmer said. “It’s the same old story: one rule for the British public, another for the prime minister and his friends.
“Just look at the contrast in his attitude towards spraying public money to contracts that don’t deliver, and his attitudes to pay rises for the key workers who kept the country going during this pandemic.”
Johnson accused Starmer of having a “deep, underlying hatred of the private sector” and wanting to instead impose a “deranged form of state control”.