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17 March 2022

Scottish Tories will let Johnson have his moment (for now)

A welcome at the Scottish Conservative conference represents a reprieve, not an exoneration, for the PM.

By Chris Deerin

“Is that Mummy?” It was indeed, and at last, Mummy. The images from RAF Brize Norton of little Gabriella Ratcliffe holding tightly to her mother, Nazanin, and being gripped just as tightly in return have provided a moment of purity and joy in a Britain recently starved of both. Sometimes, we are reminded, stories have happy endings. Sometimes the good guys win.

One is reluctant to contaminate this sublime human moment with political calculation, but such is the world. The long-awaited return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to our shores will undoubtedly have put a spring in Boris Johnson’s step as he heads north to the Scottish Conservatives’ conference in Aberdeen, which starts tomorrow.

A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister had effectively been banned from the event, like an embarrassing uncle from a wedding for fear he would goose the bridesmaids and piss in the flowerpots. Tory MSP after Tory MSP, infected by one another’s courage, lined up to demand his resignation over the scandal of lockdown parties in Downing Street.

The situation is suddenly different, at least for now. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross has withdrawn his letter to the 1922 Committee, explaining that amid war in Ukraine this is no time to change the occupant of No 10. The SNP accused Ross of being “spineless”, but his is a fair position and he is not alone in taking it – Conservative MPs, and even Sir Keir Starmer, have adopted a similar stance.

Never one to miss his moment of applause, Johnson is coming to Scotland, the bridesmaids warned and the flowers hidden out of sight. His personal role in the long campaign to bring Nazanin home may be less than meritorious, but it is his government that has brought her back and his Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who seems to be drawing much of the credit.

Johnson also arrives in the unlikely role of war leader, something this Churchill wannabe must surely have long dreamed of but that few others would have wished for. In recent weeks he has occupied a central role in the response, diplomacy and planning surrounding Vladimir Putin’s senseless destruction of Ukraine and murder of innocent Ukrainians. He has overseen notable success in arming the Ukrainian forces, and all too predictable failure in opening Britain’s doors to that country’s desperate refugees.  

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister is in credit. Like all leaders in times of war he has been inflated by events into a global statesman, an Atlas bearing great burdens, a Solomon taking decisions that will save or cost lives, an Olympian communing with his fellow greats about the future of the planet.

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From those giddy heights, the prospect of being derailed by a penalty notice from the plod must seem preposterous, like a hippo being brought down by a gnat bite. What weight a naughty bottle of Bud in the Downing Street garden next to being thanked personally in the Commons by Volodymyr Zelensky, to facing down Putin, to debating the acceptable terms of a ceasefire with Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz?

Britons have a habit of gleefully pricking the over-inflated and bringing them back down to size. From my conversations, Scottish Tories are willing to support Johnson through the Ukraine crisis, but believe there remains a bill to be paid for his disregard of the lockdown laws that his government enforced on the rest of the country, and for lying to parliament. If that time isn’t now, it will still have to be faced. 

As Ruth Davidson told me recently, the war has “pushed back” the desire among MPs to be rid of Johnson as PM. “That doesn’t mean I don’t think he was wrong, because I do. For me the two things can be separate. You can believe that someone was wrong and that the price to pay for that – for saying something in parliament that you know is untrue or acting in a way that doesn’t uphold your office – that the sanction for that should be to leave that office. You can also acknowledge that it’s not happening right now because the people that have the ability to pull the trigger [Tory MPs] are not going to do it.” 

According to the senior Conservative MSP Donald Cameron, who had called for Johnson’s resignation: “My personal view of his conduct hasn’t changed. We are in a very difficult situation, he’s the Prime Minister, he’s leader of the country. At this point in time he has rightly got a crucial role to play in all aspects of what’s happening in dealing with the defence issues, the diplomatic and refugee issues. [But] ultimately, I haven’t changed my view of what happened a month or so ago.”

This all suggests Johnson should enjoy his moment in Aberdeen, where he will no doubt receive a standing ovation and be cheered to the echo. But as his hero Churchill found in 1945, the British people can be a fickle and ungrateful lot and, if anything, Tory MPs can be even more fickle and ungrateful. I’d still bet against Johnson leading the Tories into the next general election campaign. Not everyone deserves a happy ending.

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