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22 February 2022

Boris Johnson gets his backbenchers on side – for now

The Prime Minister's announcement of the end of Covid-19 restrictions was quickly eclipsed by events in Ukraine.

By Freddie Hayward

Boris Johnson has chaired a Cobra meeting this morning to discuss the imposition of sanctions in response to Vladimir Putin sending troops into Ukraine. The sanctions are due to be introduced immediately and Johnson said that Russia’s recognition of Russian-backed rebels’ claims to the Ukrainian territories Donetsk and Luhansk breached international law.

The problem facing the government now is co-ordinating a unified response with its allies. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, has spoken with her Ukrainian counterpart and agreed with the EU’s representative for foreign affairs that the UK and EU “will co-ordinate to deliver swift sanctions against Putin’s regime”. It remains unclear how severe those sanctions will be. Overnight a White House official said that the US would not impose the full package of sanctions that have been prepared for an invasion because Russian troops were already in the region. 

Putin’s act of aggression quickly eclipsed Johnson’s announcement yesterday that all remaining domestic Covid-19 restrictions in England would be lifted.  

From Thursday people will no longer be required to self-isolate following a positive test and the support payments that helped those on low incomes to isolate will end. Routine contact tracing and the provision of free tests for the general public will be scrapped. 

The Prime Minister’s announcement in the Commons was met with a buoyant response from his own MPs. David Davis, who only weeks ago demanded that Johnson “in the name of God go”, greeted the announcement with warmth. Mark Harper welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement and jokingly invited him to join his lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group.

What does this tell us? Importantly, the announcement will bolster Johnson’s support among his own backbenchers as the prospect of the police handing him a fixed penalty notice looms. But it also speaks to the volatility of that support: a damaging result of the police investigation may just as quickly turn the tide of backbench opinion against him. 

Whether Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, has presented his last PowerPoint slide or not, the pandemic is fading in importance for the government. Instead, the focus of the government will turn to the difficult business of co-ordinating a united western response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

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