Boris Johnson has said that Vladimir Putin’s plan to invade Ukraine has “already in some senses begun” and warned that it would lead to the “biggest war in Europe since 1945”.
In an interview with the BBC’s Sunday Morning today (20 February) Johnson said that the West’s response to Russian aggression “may not be enough to deter an irrational actor”. The Russian president, he said, was thinking “illogically”.
Yesterday at the Munich Security Conference the Prime Minister predicted that a Russian invasion would be followed “by a long and hideous period of reprisals and revenge and insurgency”. The Observer reported this morning that Western allies were discussing how to arm a Ukrainian resistance in the event of a Russian invasion toppling the government in Kyiv.
While Johnson ended his Munich speech by calling on Western allies to deliver a “message of unity”, disunity continues to dog his position at home. On Friday he submitted a questionnaire to the police investigation into Downing Street parties, which could potentially result in him receiving a fixed penalty notice for breaking lockdown rules. However, it is becoming increasingly likely that Johnson would not resign even if he were fined. In his interview with Sophie Raworth this morning he refused to answer questions on the matter, instead muttering with a smirk, “I know Sophie, I understand your curiosity”.
James Cleverly, the Europe Minister, also suggested in an interview with Trevor Phillips on Sky today that Johnson intended to stay on come what may. When Phillips said that he interpreted Cleverly’s comments as a statement that Johnson would not resign, Cleverly replied: “That’s how you should interpret it.”
Johnson will hope that his action on Ukraine will bolster support among his most important constituency: his own MPs. Tory MPs are split on how the Ukraine crisis affects their leader: some think Johnson should be removed because his weakness at home undermines Britain’s ability to influence events abroad; others argue that the impending conflict means it would be reckless to change prime minister now.
Developments this week could allay backbencher’s fears that Johnson’s precarious position at home is weakening his ability to respond to Putin. The positive tone of calls with Joe Biden, the US president, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, as reported in the Sunday Times, could be interpreted by MPs as evidence that he is capable of acting on the world stage during the scandal. Indeed, Theresa May, who has been critical of the Prime Minister over partygate, recently praised Johnson for pressing “the case for continued diplomacy, while preparing the most severe sanctions for Russia if Putin chooses the catastrophe of war”.
It has been a relatively easy week for the Prime Minister, partly because parliament has been in recess. But with MPs returning to Westminster tomorrow and the overhanging risk of further damaging partygate revelations, his position could soon come under pressure once again.