Sunak claims Starmer win would embolden Putin as election battle hots up

Rishi Sunak warned giving Sir Keir Starmer the keys to No 10 would leave the country less safe and embolden Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in an early indication of bitter general election battles to come.

The Prime Minister claimed Labour’s refusal to adopt the Government’s plan to spend 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) on defence sent the wrong message at a time when the world was facing “one of the most dangerous periods we’ve ever known”.

The highly personal attack on Sir Keir Starmer came as Mr Sunak attempted to revive Tory hopes with his party more than 20 points behind in the opinion polls and licking its wounds after a local election mauling.

Sir Keir rejected the attack, saying “I know first-hand the importance of national security” from his role as director of public prosecutions.

Rishi Sunak speech at Policy Exchange – London
Rishi Sunak speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank in central London (Carl Court/PA)

In a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank Mr Sunak said he remained “confident” that his party could win the general election as it was “the only party really talking about the future” and offering “bold ideas and a clear plan” rather than “lofty platitudes”.

The Prime Minister’s wide-ranging address warned of threats over the next five years from an “axis of authoritarian powers” including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, extremists seeking to sow division at home, fears about new technologies such as artificial intelligence and global forces imperilling people’s financial security.

He said: “People want to know that they have got someone in charge who understands these dangers, because only if you understand what’s happening can you be trusted to keep us safe.”

(PA Graphics)

Labour has said it wants to raise defence spending to 2.5% of GDP, but has not set a date for achieving that target and would carry out a defence review if it wins the election.

Mr Sunak said: “I believe that we will keep this country safe and Keir Starmer’s actions demonstrate that he won’t be able to do that.”

He added: “The Labour Party and Keir Starmer not matching our investment on defence spending emboldens our adversaries.

“What do you think Putin thinks when he sees that? That he thinks the West isn’t prepared to make the tough choices to invest in their security?

“Because Russia’s economy has mobilised for war, he is continuing to be aggressive, we need to meet that aggression with strength.”

Mr Sunak also accused the opposition of attempting to “depress their way to victory” with “talk of doom loops and gaslighting and scaremongering about pensions”.

He said: “They have just one thing: a calculation that they can make you feel so bad about your country, that you won’t have the energy to ask what they might do with the incredible power that they seek to yield.”

(PA Graphics)

But while he painted a picture of a difficult period ahead, the Prime Minister also pointed to significant opportunities presented by transformational technologies such as AI, adding it was “incumbent upon us to make this a period not just of great danger but of great progress too”.

In his speech and question and answer session, Mr Sunak:

– Stressed he would not let the European Court of Human Rights derail his Rwanda asylum plan, saying “if the Strasbourg court make me choose between the ECHR and this country’s security, I will choose our country’s security every single time”.

– Kept the door open for Boris Johnson to play a role during the election, saying the party was “a broad church” and the election was not a choice between “this Conservative and that Conservative” but against Labour.

– Again refused to rule out a July election, saying he did not want a debate about “process and timing”.

Mr Sunak concluded: “There are storms ahead. The dangers are all too real, but Britain can feel proud again, Britain can feel confident again, because with bold action and a clear plan, we can and we will create a secure future.”

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in Three Squares Cafe in Skinnergate, Darlington, during a visit to Teesside to meet local shop keepers, business owners and families, and discuss the cost of living on the first pay day since the Tory tax changes. Picture date: Friday April 26, 2024.
The Prime Minister suggested Britain would be less safe under Sir Keir Starmer and a win for the opposition would ’embolden’ Vladimir Putin (Owen Humphreys/PA)

He told reporters in Wolverhampton: “The first duty of any government, particularly an incoming Labour government, is national security, the security of the country, and that would be my first priority.”

Sir Keir said Mr Sunak’s speech was “his seventh reset in 18 months”.

“That really shows you that the choice as we go into this election is now pretty clear: It’s a choice between a changed Labour Party that puts the country first and party second, or continuing with this government, the chaos and division that’s been going on for so long, caused so much hardship.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “This Conservative Government is out of touch and out of time and Rishi Sunak must do the right thing and give the people a general election.”

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