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11 April 2022

Boris Johnson’s trip to Ukraine can’t disguise the omnishambles at home

The Prime Minister and his third-rate cabinet cannot endlessly evade responsibility for the parlous state Britain is in.

By Martin Fletcher

Not for the first time, Britain’s esteemed Prime Minister has managed to divide public opinion.

To judge by social media, half the country thinks Boris Johnson’s surprise weekend visit to Kyiv was a commendable act of statesmanship, a courageous display of solidarity with a besieged country, and absolutely The Right Thing To Do. He used the occasion to announce another £100m of desperately needed military aid for Ukraine to add to the copious quantities he has already given.

The other half think it was a shameless piece of grandstanding by an endlessly posturing politician, a glorified photo op that Johnson milked for all it was worth, a meeting between a leader fighting for his own survival and a leader fighting for his country’s survival, with the former hoping to steal a bit of the latter’s gold dust. Indeed, there was some surprise that Johnson restricted himself to occasional thumbs-up gestures rather than Churchillian “V” for victory signs.

Both views are true, of course. Johnson was right to go, but he would have relished Volodymyr Zelensky’s praise for his robust leadership and the front-page coverage that his visit secured in Sunday’s papers. In fairness, any of his Downing Street predecessors would have done the same.

That said, Johnson’s show of support for Ukraine would have been a lot more convincing had his government not made it so hard for that country’s desperate refugees to enter Britain. It is unlikely that Johnson dwelled on that issue in his talks with Zelensky – or that he will be staging a photo op at some camp for visa-seeking Ukrainians any time soon. 

His support would have carried more weight had his government and party not spent so long courting and soliciting funds from Russian oligarchs. Or if he had not played into Vladimir Putin’s hands by quitting – and thus weakening – the European Union. Or if he were not lauding Ukraine’s fight for freedom and democracy while disdaining parliament and seeking to restrict the right to protest and vote at home.

His visit would have been a lot more palatable to his critics, moreover, was he not ignoring, or seeking so blatantly to distract attention from, the deepening omnishambles in the UK.

Britain has a prime minister under criminal investigation, with 20 of his Downing Street aides (including his former ethics chief) having already been fined for breaking the draconian Covid restrictions he imposed on the rest of the country. 

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Britain has a Chancellor of the Exchequer – the ultimate “citizen of nowhere” – in deep trouble for raising everyone else’s taxes while his mega-rich wife found a way to avoid them.

The British people face the steepest decline in living standards since records began, the highest tax burden since the 1940s, the lowest level of benefits in half a century, and surging food and fuel prices that could force millions to choose between heating and eating before the year’s end.

For good measure, the UK has a Covid infection rate nearing record levels once more, a record backlog of patients requiring NHS treatment, a record backlog of court cases, a doubling wait for passports, travel chaos at airports, 20-mile lorry queues at Dover and much else besides.

Yes, Johnson’s government has had to contend with two huge global crises – the pandemic and the Ukraine war. But he and his third-rate cabinet cannot endlessly evade responsibility for the parlous state Britain is in. 

The truth is that they have no idea what to do. They have no coherent, joined-up strategy for reversing the country’s downward spiral. They are led by a big-spending Prime Minister and belt-tightening Chancellor who are pulling in opposite directions. They talk of cutting taxes while repeatedly raising them. They make lofty promises without any realistic means of delivering them. 

This government never had much of a moral compass, but it no longer has much of a political compass either. Sunak’s Spring Statement was a dud. So was the Prime Minister’s long-awaited energy security strategy last week – it envisaged as many as eight new nuclear power stations down the road, but made precious little mention of energy saving or contentious onshore wind farms now. So was Michael Gove’s recent white paper on what is supposedly the government’s flagship policy of levelling up. It was full of fine targets, but woefully short of funds for achieving them. The cost-of-living crisis is meanwhile hammering the left-behind.

Johnson has promised a house-building revolution, but abandoned the necessary planning reforms in order to appease his backbenchers. He condemned P&O Ferries for summarily sacking 800 workers, but has shelved the employment bill that might have prevented it. He U-turned not once, but twice, in the hours before unveiling what was supposed to be a considered policy on gay conversion therapy this month.

He has, however, approved Nadine Dorries’s plan to privatise Channel 4. It is a plan that makes no commercial sense, and that is favoured only by a few right-wing ideologues who regard the channel, in the words of one, as a “virulently anti-Tory, crypto-Corbynite propaganda outlet, parroting the views of London’s metropolitan establishment”.

To the extent that there is an animating force in No 10 at the moment, it is the need to save a prime minister hobbled by “partygate”. Thus, its policies are determined not by the welfare of the country, but by the need to placate Conservative backbenchers. Thus, Johnson and his cronies discreetly seek to undermine his potential successors, and – less discreetly – to rally his base by railing against imagined enemies. Thus, too, he gratefully seizes headline-generating and attention-grabbing opportunities such as a surprise visit to wartime Ukraine.

[See also: Privatising Channel 4 is bad business, bad politics and bad Conservatism]

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