Sketch: Boris Johnson would rather talk about Ukraine
The Prime Minister would like to talk about Ukraine. He understands, he claims, why others might instead want to talk about his law-breaking and his (dis)honesty. But, personally speaking, he would much rather focus on eastern Europe.
In fact, “it is precisely because I know that so many people are angry and disappointed” about the fact he attended a party when people were legally prevented from mourning loved ones at funerals or holding the hands of dying relatives in hospitals, that he says he would rather chat about Ukraine.
“I feel an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people and to respond in the best traditions of our country to Putin’s barbaric onslaught against Ukraine,” Boris Johnson told the Commons. Unless, of course, the priority of the British people was to oust him. Then he’d would not feel any sense of obligation to deliver, I suspect.
Still, feeling keenly that he couldn’t only talk about Russian aggression, Boris Johnson dutifully sloped towards Westminster to say sorry. “As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and the anger, and I said that people had a right to expect better of their Prime Minister,” he said, talking about himself.
“Let me also say, not by way of mitigation or excuse,” Johnson continued, gearing up to give a mitigating excuse, “but purely because it explains my previous words in this House, that it did not occur to me then or subsequently that a gathering in the Cabinet room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules.” Honest, gov, he didn’t know he broke the law he put in place. That’s his story and, apparently, unbelievably, he’s sticking to it.
So, now that’s all done and dusted, he said, can we instead talk about Ukraine?
Well, Keir Starmer would rather not. In fact, he’d appeared on ITV earlier that day, grinning like the Cheshire Cat and talking about how much he was looking forward to sticking the boot into Boris. Then realising that the optics of that wouldn’t play well, he told Lorraine Kelly: “This isn’t a game for me.”
Starmer had at least managed to wipe the smirk off his face by the time he reached the Commons a few hours later. “What a joke,” he started. “Even now, as the latest mealy mouth apology stumbles out of one side of his mouth, a new set of deflections and distortions pour from the other.” Eesh. You might have thought he’d have had time to focus group that line before saying it in public.
Starmer then tried to label Johnson “dishonest” but after some Tory jeering, the Speaker was forced to step in. He advised Starmer to pick another word.
“Criminal!” offered some helpful Labour backbenchers. Starmer did not take up that option, instead insisting the public “know what he is”.
But then accepting the limits of his position, the leader of the opposition turned to the Tory backbenchers, again, to encourage them to remove their boss. It was so successful that last time, you see. “Don’t follow in the slipstream of an out-of-touch, out-of-control Prime Minister,” he told them.
So, what did those MPs have to say?
Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister, felt Johnson had offered a “contrite and wholehearted apology”. It is unclear whether he was in the same room as everyone else.
Staffordshire MP Bill Cash told his colleagues that given the PM had paid the fine within 28 days, there was “no stain imputed to his character”. Indeed.
Intelligence Committee chair Julian Lewis said the Sue Gray report should be published to “put an end to this matter so that we do not get diverted away, as we are being” from talking about Ukraine. All valiant efforts to take the heat off Johnson.
Then one backbench MP took his duty a bit too far. Sir Edward Leigh rose to admit: “Yes, someone needs to have the courage to get rid of the leader.” A cliffhanger of an introduction. All eyes were on him. The noise in the chamber dropped to a low murmur. “The leader who is sitting in the Kremlin and causing the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people,” he added with a flourish.
He continued: “Maybe I only speak for myself, I say it in all humility, I’m not giving the satisfaction to the despot tyrant of removing a Prime Minister, who has given an apology, who was working night and day to save thousands of lives, who went downstairs to thank his staff who were doing the same job. He has apologised, let’s show some compassion.”
That contribution probably won’t lead to a promotion to foreign secretary or the international development office any time soon. Johnson had to deploy an unusual bit of tact: “We do not make it an objective to remove a Russian leader or to change politics anywhere. This is about protecting the people of Ukraine,” he insisted. Nonetheless, at least it was a question about Ukraine so, while clumsy, points for toeing the line, Sir Ed.