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24 February 2022

War forces Boris Johnson’s critics to change their approach

The opposition will stand with the government against Putin while emphasising all the ways the Prime Minister isn't up to the job.

By Ailbhe Rea

War has returned to Europe, and with it a new seriousness has descended over Westminster politics. 

As the news broke this morning that Russia had invaded Ukraine, Boris Johnson, his government and his critics — in his own party and on the opposition benches — began anxiously to plan their responses. They all know that war demands unity and maturity from politicians, and that they need to strike a constructive tone. For Johnson’s critics, that means the House being squarely behind him when he announces the detail of further sanctions against Russia later today (24 February), avoiding the division that Putin wants.

Beneath the surface, and despite the severity of the situation, the fractures in the Conservative Party and the perceived weaknesses that opposition parties hope to expose haven’t gone away. 

For the opposition parties, that means grappling with how hard to go with a powerful but divisive line of attack, that “the Conservatives have helped to bed Russian money into the UK and shore up Putin’s power base”, as one opposition figure puts it darkly, explaining that this is an argument no one yet feels comfortable making — themselves included. 

Labour, in particular, has spent over a year building a case against the government focused on crony contracts and wasteful management of the public finances. The need for Russian sanctions opens up a new frontier in that argument, but they know they will need to press that point subtly in a time that demands unity.

We can expect Labour to highlight illicit money and the funding of the Conservative Party in the coming weeks, but just as much to focus on the Conservatives’ treatment of Britain’s military capacity over the last decade. The “hubris” of last year’s Integrated Defence Review, and its “Indo-Pacific tilt”, will be a particular point of contention. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, will be highlighting the Conservatives’ intended cuts to troop numbers, asking if a cut of 10,000 soldiers sends the right message to Nato allies at this time. We can also expect the opposition to pressure the government into accepting a high number of those escaping from Ukraine as a refugee crisis looms. As I wrote this morning, everyone is also braced for the domestic impact of the war too, as the war and sanctions affect not only energy prices, but also potentially wheat supplies, worsening the cost of living crisis.

The pressure on Boris Johnson won’t just come from the opposition but from his own party. All questions of a leadership challenge are off the table for now, but the damage of the partygate scandal is playing out in another way, with opposition politicians privately expressing their surprise at how unvarnished the disappointment was among Conservative MPs yesterday at the limited scale of the sanctions he announced.

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Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has been robust in highlighting the shortcomings of the UK government’s response, while another senior Conservative, David Davis, has called on the UK to involve itself militarily in the conflict by enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. It is not entirely a coincidence that Tugendhat is the only declared candidate in the Conservative leadership contest that has yet to begin, while a few short weeks ago it was Davis who told Johnson to “in the name of God, go”. 

As one opposition figure puts it: “If I were one of Boris Johnson’s big rebels, I wouldn’t be mentioning partygate anymore. That isn’t what the public wants. Instead, I would be doing what Keir Starmer and Ed Davey are doing, expressing their support for Boris Johnson, emphasising that they stand with him, but subtly emphasising all the ways in which he isn’t really up to the job.” No one is mentioning partygate now, but Johnson’s vocal MPs will be pushing him to exert a tougher response. The shadow over Johnson’s leadership hasn’t entirely gone away while the world faces a major crisis — it is merely playing out differently in this new context.

[See also: The West is paying the price for deluding itself about Putin]

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