Credit: AJ Duncan

Putin’s Ukrainian invasion may be the saving grace Boris Johnson never predicted

By Fraser McFarlane

Lost to memory are the Barnard Castle eye test, Matt Hancock’s lockdown lover and #Partygate… for now.

The pandemic has been anything but plain sailing for Boris Johnson’s government but the latest Covid-related scandal was viewed by many as the tipping point. The revelations of persistent streams of champagne fuelled get-togethers and quick trips to the shops to fill “suitcases of booze” in the darkest days of lockdown had plagued Number 10 and the prime minister for much of January and February. There have been countless resignations and the gatherings are still subject to a police investigation. But, in the last week, #Partygate has been almost wiped off the news agenda, and if the polls are to be believed, has moved down the British people’s list of priorities.

Along with the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week came a re-emerging sense of national unity and, as witnessed throughout the initial stages of the pandemic, increased support for the government. The Conservatives’ deep dive in the polls that began in the wake of the scandal, in which Labour overtook the government consistently for the first time since before the pandemic, is beginning to recover. The latest Westminster poll by Redfield and Wilton Strategies shows the narrowing of the Labour lead, with the Conservatives’ just three points behind last week, compared to seven points at the end of January.  This sense of national unity and support for Ukraine is the first indication that the Prime Minister may be able to recover from his January blues.

But it’s not just the UK that has been largely united on Ukraine: Russia’s initial invasion and the following days have seen a surprisingly united response from Western countries generally. Extreme political and economic sanctions have been implemented, ranging from restricting the ability of Russian banks to trade in Western currencies to banning Russian airlines from UK and EU airspace, a move for which the prime minister claimed credit due to the UK being the first country in Europe to do so. The UK’s leadership in the removal of Russia from the SWIFT electronic financial messaging system which contributed to the overnight 30% decrease in value of the Russian rouble has also been presented by Boris Johnson as a symbol of UK government success. It is evident that the prime minister is attempting to demonstrate the UK’s leadership on the world stage, subtly attempting to regain credibility with other world leaders and re-establish trust between Downing Street and the electorate.

“It is evident that the prime minister is attempting to demonstrate the UK’s leadership on the world stage, subtly attempting to regain credibility with other world leaders and re-establish trust…”

As the media have rightly focused on the crisis in the past few days, it has provided Boris Johnson and Number 10 with some breathing space from the saga of Partygate. Opposition politicians also now have other priorities, as was seen this week with Labour’s call for tougher sanctions on Russian oligarchs living in the UK. Last week’s Prime Minister Questions (PMQs) was the first since before Christmas that didn’t mention Partygate or Downing Street’s other countless Covid-related scandals. The jibing and shouting across the chamber that we were once again getting used to post-Covid was replaced on Wednesday by a powerful and emotional standing ovation for the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, who was in the public gallery of the House of Commons, symbolising the UK’s unified support for the people of Ukraine.

Support for the prime minister from within the Parliamentary Conservative Party (PCP) also appears to have stabilised in the weeks running up to last week’s invasion.  The PCP is not known for their understanding approach to Conservative leaders, if we look back to the effective sacking of Theresa May by her backbenchers just three years ago as a prime example. But many Conservative MPs in the wake of this crisis are publicly citing issues of national defence and security as the primary reasoning behind their decision not to push the Prime Minister out. Boris Johnson has attempted to please his colleagues by demonstrating Britain’s leadership on the world stage at a time of crisis, especially in a post-Brexit world; which has of course pleased a certain section of Tory backbenchers. Behind the scenes, however, problems such as a lack of obvious succession and Johnson’s unique appeal to Red Wall voters in the North of England and North Wales could be playing a larger role than MPs are letting on.

Therefore, for now, this vile, unjustified and illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia has perhaps provided, in the eyes of Boris Johnson, a distraction from the issues facing the government in Downing Street. Unity of political parties can sometimes be translated by the public as unity for the government, which is what we may be witnessing currently. However, political arguments concerning humanitarian response to the Russian invasion, specifically with regard to refugees could make this renewed support for Boris Johnson disappear. This, combined with an ongoing Scotland Yard investigation, the threat of Fixed Penalty Notices and the increased support for Labour, may mean all of the problems from the start of the year could still come back to bite.


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