Keir Starmer was today forced to admit blundering in the House of Commons when he accused Boris Johnson of repeating untrue claims that he wanted the UK to join the stumbling EU vaccines procurement programme.
The pair clashed at prime minister’s questions after the Labour leader responded to Johnson’s jibes by telling MPs that “the truth escapes him”.
And the row spilled over outside the chamber as the pair continued disputing the issue after PMQs had finished – though a Labour MP who was with Sir Keir dismissed reports of a heated altercation as “absolute bollocks”.
As the delays in the EU’s programme of coronavirus jabs have become apparent, Mr Johnson has taken to needling Starmer with a claim – firmly denied by Labour – that he had previously called for the UK to join Brussels’ procurement effort.
At PMQs today, however, the prime minister switched tack and told MPs that Starmer “wanted to stay in the European Medicines Agency and said so four times from that despatch box.
An exasperated Starmer responded: “Nonsense. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a pre-prepared gag. The prime minister knows I’ve never said that from this despatch box or anywhere else, but the truth escapes him.”
Conservative MP Mark Francois stepped in immediately after PMQs with a point of order, reading out a 2017 quote from Starmer in which he did support UK membership of the EMA.
And Francois later claimed he had seen Starmer outside the aye lobby of the Commons “puce with anger” and “wagging his finger aggressively” at the PM.
But Labour MP Chris Matheson, who was with Starmer, dismissed the account as “absolute bollocks”.
“There was a brief chat and then Keir and I left together,” he said. “Nothing more to it than that.”
However, there was embarrassment for Starmer, when he was later forced to admit that the PM’s claim was correct.
A spokesperson for the Labour leader said: “On a number of occasions the prime minister has wrongly claimed that Labour wanted to join the EU’s vaccine programme. That is inaccurate and the claim has been found to be untrue.
“This afternoon during prime minister’s questions, Keir misheard the prime minister and assumed he was making the same false accusation again.
“Keir accepts that, on this occasion, the prime minister was referring to old comments about the European Medicines Agency and Keir admits he was wrong and made a mistake in his response.
“It’s not Labour policy to join either the European Medicines Agency or the EU vaccine programme. We have never called for the UK to be in the EU vaccine programme.
“We remain committed to working with the Government to ensure we can be the first in the world to roll out the vaccine.”