Keir Starmer says Joe Biden was ‘on good form’ in first bilateral meeting

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Keir Starmer has said Joe Biden was “on good form” and went through serious issues at pace during their first bilateral talks at the White House as he was asked about claims the US president could be senile.

The prime minister said his personal view, having spent almost an hour in private talks with Biden and attended a dinner for Nato leaders at the White House, was that he was mentally agile.

Asked in a round of broadcast interviews whether criticism of Biden was misguided, the prime minister said: “Yes … my own personal view is he was on good form. I was very keen obviously to discuss Ukraine, but there were many other issues that we got through.”

Downing Street said Starmer had not raised the issue of the US president’s health or his future plans in their meeting, but reporters asked him about media speculation that Biden could be suffering from early dementia symptoms.

“No, we had a really good bilateral yesterday. We were billed for 45 minutes, we went on for the best part of an hour,” he said. “We went through a huge number of issues at pace, he was actually on really good form.”

Starmer’s first meeting with the US president would normally have been a highlight, but with questions raging about Biden’s age and health, and the US election only four months away, it called for careful choreography.

He said Biden was “absolutely across all the detail” in discussions on issues including Ukraine, Gaza and European relations, as well as defence issues around the Nato summit.

The prime minister repeatedly refused to put a date on raising defence spending to 2.5%. Asked if it was an ambition to do so within this parliament, he said: “I’m not going to put a date on it because it’s going to be within our fiscal rules.”

The government will announce a strategic defence review next week, setting out its timetable for reaching the 2.5% figure. “What I don’t want to do is what has been done in the past, which is to set an arbitrary date without a pathway,” Starmer said. “I don’t think that’s serious.”

In a separate briefing with journalists, the defence secretary, John Healey, said the UK was facing “a decade or more of growing Russian aggression”, which made supporting Ukraine his first priority.

He suggested the UK wanted to have a functioning relationship with Hungary, which has faced criticism over a visit to Moscow last week by its far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán for talks with Vladimir Putin, despite being a Nato and member. Orbán is expected to meet Donald Trump on Thursday.

Healy also ruled out the UK joining a European army as part of its defence and security pact with the EU.

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On a more personal note, Starmer was asked what his parents would have made of seeing their son walk through the door of No 10 as prime minister.

“Oh, they’d have loved that. And there’s a real part of me that just wishes that they could have been there, because that would been very special for them,” he said. “Obviously, they’re not with us any more. They won’t have that moment. But I can’t pretend to you that I haven’t thought about that.”

He denied the moment was bittersweet but said: “I would have loved them to have been there and they weren’t there. And Vic obviously lost her mum in the Labour leadership contest.

“So both of us had a thought and a discussion about that. We would have loved our parents to be there. They weren’t, but we smiled because we know what they would have thought had they been there.”

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