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15 February 2022

A weak leader is the last thing Britain needs in a crisis

Boris Johnson's allies claim he shouldn't be removed while Ukraine and Russia are on the brink of war. But why would Putin take him seriously?

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson and President Biden have said that there remains a “crucial window” to avoid a Russian invasion of Ukraine, amid hints from the Russian side that a diplomatic solution to the crisis remains possible.

While the world looks on in the hope of a Russian climbdown in the coming hours or days, Johnson’s allies hope that this crisis is proof of their argument that it would have been the wrong decision to remove the Prime Minister in recent weeks — not because Johnson is especially adept at handling diplomatic crises (ask Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe), but because the brink of war is simply the wrong time to change leaders.

Concerned figures within the party worry, however, that precisely the opposite is true: that not only has a string of scandals weakened Johnson domestically and made policymaking sluggish at home, but that it has fatally weakened his standing abroad. Why, ask concerned critics in the Conservative Party, should Putin or European leaders listen to a Prime Minister they see as being on his way out, or take lectures from a leader under investigation for potentially illegal activity at home? Many of Johnson’s Conservative critics believe the UK’s standing in the world has already been diminished by Brexit, but the storm around him has hurt what little clout the UK had left. They worry it affects the entire Johnson government — for example the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, an emissary for a Prime Minister potentially on his last legs.

On today’s New Statesman podcast I interview Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, about the dangers that await Johnson in the coming months, whether Rishi Sunak is pursuing the right strategy to replace him, and whether the Conservative Party of Cameron and May is gone forever.

Today’s crisis in Ukraine — as Johnson reiterates his calls for European countries to reduce their reliance on Russian gas — is just one example of how the psychodrama of our domestic politics has real-world consequences abroad. The UK is far from a main protagonist in the unfolding international crisis surrounding Ukraine but a weakened British leader is the last thing the UK, Nato or the world needs at a point when Russia needs to be met with strength and credibility.

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