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Johnson wants to have his khaki and eat it

Johnson wants to have his khaki and eat it

While staying out of the Ukraine conflict, the PM hopes to extract as much political profit from it as possible – in preparation for going to the polls

It is now overwhelmingly clear that Boris Johnson is planning a khaki election. The Ukraine war has, the prime minister believes, transformed the political landscape and, specifically, his own position within it. 

Less than a month ago, he was still in a defensive crouch, desperately struggling to save his premiership from the scandal arising from the breaches of the very Covid regulations that his own government had imposed, and from the Met investigation that is still in progress. Now, on day 26 of the conflict, he is swaggering across the world stage, never missing an opportunity to stand at a lectern beside his fellow heads of government and posture as a Churchilian figure in the resolution of this geostrategic crisis. 

Today, he will join Emmanuel Macron of France, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi on a video call hosted by Joe Biden. On Thursday, it’s off to Brussels for the Nato summit, which will also be attended in person by the US president; meanwhile, the PM has let it be known that he intends to make a “lightning trip” to Kyiv itself.

The new electoral plan goes something like this. Assuming that the PM is indeed going to be issued with a fixed penalty notice by the police for all his allegedly unlawful partying, it would be best (his team rightly calculates) if this happened sooner rather than later.

In which event: Johnson goes to the Commons, issues an abject apology to just about everyone, declares that he has learned his lesson – “No more law-breaking during pandemics, Mr Speaker!” – and then, doe-eyed, seeks permission to get on with the job of saving the world. In so doing, he gambles that his own backbench rebels will back down, fearful of appearing petty if they persist with their complaints about cake and wine in the garden of Number 10 while death rains down on Ukraine (Johnson, I am told, is less certain than some of his advisers that all of the mutineering MPs will be so docile; but he agrees with the general strategy).

Next, comes the horrendous business of the May local elections, in which the Tories expect to be kicked hard by the voters. Again, however, Johnson’s team believes that this battering can be ascribed to the cost-of-living crisis, the pent-up frustrations of lockdown, and the enduring appeal of administering a mid-term bashing to any government. 

The remaining two elements are as follows: on Wednesday, when Rishi Sunak delivers his spring statement, Labour will object that the chancellor is raising taxes but also complain that he is not spending enough. For all the tensions between them, Johnson and Sunak agree that this will make the Opposition look absurd, and certainly not like a government-in-waiting. The PM and chancellor will argue that Labour has replaced the magical money tree with outright magical thinking.

The second element in Johnson’s snap election plan is less predictable: namely, to revive and mobilise once more the animal spirits of Brexit, and present the UK’s restored sovereignty as the engine that will fire up its post-Covid recovery and ensure its resilience in the face of the economic, humanitarian and geopolitical consequences of the Ukraine conflict. 

Ten days ago, David Canzini, the PM’s new deputy chief of staff and a longtime ally and colleague of veteran Tory strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, surprised his fellow advisers by identifying Brexit delivery as the government’s top priority, ahead even of the cost-of-living crisis. “If you don’t think that’s a priority you shouldn’t be here,” Canzini was reported to have said.

This may be an unhinged strategy, one that insults the voters who made clear in the 2019 general election that they wanted shot of Brexit, and are now much more concerned by rising prices and their utility bills. But – to be fair – Canzini was only reflecting his new boss’s thinking. 

At the Conservative spring conference in Blackpool on Saturday, Johnson sought – incredibly – to establish an explicit linkage between Brexit and the war. “I know that it’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine to choose freedom, every time,” he said. “When the British people voted for Brexit, in such large, large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners. It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself.”

One barely knows where to begin with such a grotesquerie. On yesterday’s broadcast round, Sunak was visibly frustrated at having to spend so much time defending the PM’s remarks when he was meant to be preparing the ground for his statement. Even some of Johnson’s most loyal ministerial allies were appalled by what he had said. One simply texted me: “OMFG.”

Squirming with embarrassment, the chancellor did the best he could by claiming that Johnson had not actually said that Brexit and the Ukrainian war were precisely “analogous”. Maybe: but the PM had undoubtedly compared the freedom that the British people had sought in the 2016 referendum with the freedom that the Ukrainians are fighting to defend with their lives – right now, today, at this very moment.

In that outrageous rhetorical stunt, one saw how mutilated our political discourse has been by Brexit and by populism. It has brought us to the point where the prime minister of the day can, with a straight face, draw a parallel between, on the one hand, a decision taken by the British people at the ballot box to leave an international alliance; and, on the other, Ukraine’s battle for survival against a tyrannical war criminal: a battle that has already displaced an estimated ten million of its citizens, 3.4 million of whom have fled the country entirely.

Sorry, Big Dog: but you don’t get to compare your narrowly victorious campaign to remove Britain from the EU with the most hideous war waged in Europe since 1945. You haven’t earned the right to imply that Slava Ukraini! is just a translation of “Take back control”. 

As Putin’s invasion loomed, President Zelensky didn’t write two statements – one announcing surrender, the other declaring that Ukraine would fight – to see which would be best for his career. By peacetime standards, the 2016 referendum campaign was indeed hard fought. But I don’t recall the Remain campaign or the European Commission bombing residential buildings in this country, or deploying hypersonic missiles.

The big mistake that many of Johnson’s admirers still make – and there are plenty more of them than is often acknowledged – is to wave away such outrage as “Remoaner” hysteria and to insist that the PM’s oratory should be taken seriously, but not literally. 

I seem to remember a similar plea being made on behalf of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. And, as with Trump, I don’t acknowledge the distinction. In the past six years, Brexitism has become fundamental to everything that Johnson says and does: the Swiss army knife of his politics, used in every circumstance. It is now absolutely natural to him – a default position, if you like – to claim that our exit from the EU is politically comparable to the struggle of the Ukrainians. He long ago fell prey to the worst thing that can happen to a politician, which is to believe his own spin.

All of this, of course, is a complete and total irrelevance to those in the warzone. Especially desperate is the situation in the besieged south-eastern city of Mariupol, where an art school was shelled yesterday morning – trapping 400 women, children and elderly people under rubble (there is no reliable estimate yet of how many survived). 

Many thousands of Ukrainians are now being forcibly deported to Russia, a horrific echo of the methods used by both Stalin and Hitler. Ten days ago, 56 elderly residents of a residential home in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kreminna were reportedly killed by shellfire from a Russian tank.

On Thursday, four Ukrainian MPs – Lesia Vasylenko, Alona Shkrum, Maria Mezentseva and Olena Khomenko – recounted to British ministers, MPs and journalists patterns of hideous sexual violence that appear already to have become commonplace in the conflict. In particular, they reported that Russian soldiers are serially raping women, including the elderly, and then executing them.

And what are we doing about it? Thanks to the foresight of Ben Wallace, the defence secretary and a former captain in the Scots Guards, Britain has played a creditable role in arming the Ukrainians. But few senior politicians, so far, are following Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Commons defence select committee, in his call to keep the option of a no-fly zone on the table (still Zelensky’s most insistent request to the West, don’t forget).

On the humanitarian front: after a disastrous start in which Priti Patel, the home secretary, misled the Commons about the existence of a visa application centre en route to Calais and dragged her feet in the simplification of the byzantine admissions system, Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary last week at least conveyed the impression of purpose and grip with his announcement of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

It is certainly uplifting that 150,000 Britons have already signed up to offer space in their homes or vacant properties for Ukrainian refugees. At the same time, one should recognise the inherent limits to such a system – not only its complexity and the safeguarding issues which it raises, but also its overt delegation of a colossal humanitarian task to well-meaning individuals, charities and businesses. 

Compassionate voluntarism is an admirable force; but no government should be permitted to abdicate its core responsibility for asylum and the care of the world’s most vulnerable people to individual citizens. In this context, do not forget the following: Priti Patel still hopes to send asylum seekers abroad to be processed in a distant location such as Rwanda or St Helena; she still wants to deploy the Royal Navy in the Channel to fend off refugees in dinghies; and she claimed on Saturday, in her own speech in Blackpool, that the Ukrainians headed to these shores (overwhelmingly women and children) could include “covert operatives” working for Putin “who plot to strike at our very way of life”. 

So do not be deceived. For all its ethical appeal, Gove’s sponsorship scheme is an exception to a rule that remains robust; one that is directly traceable to the spirit of the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns of 2016. Reduced to its essentials, that rule states that, other things being equal, it is best to keep foreigners out, and that being able to do so is one of the supposed glories of Brexit.

In all this, one can detect the lineaments of Johnson’s plan for political recovery and for another election victory, perhaps as early as a year from now. All roads lead back to the UK’s departure from the EU; all causes for optimism lead forward from it; and the war will be quarried ruthlessly for useful rhetoric and opportunities to strike political positions that assist this strategy.

If you doubt this, consider the ludicrous manner in which both Johnson and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, also connected the Ukrainian conflict to their own battle against alleged “wokeness”. In Britain, the PM declared, “we don’t need to be woke. We just want to be free, and that’s why talented people are fleeing Russia right now. That’s why they’re flocking to the UK.”

Truss was even more expansive. “This crisis has shown the strength of the free world,” she told the party she aspires to lead in Blackpool. “We should be proud of our country, and our long standing commitment to freedom and democracy. Now is the time to end the culture of self-doubt. The constant self-questioning and introspection. The ludicrous debates about language, statues and pronouns.”

Again, it is instructive – as well as shaming – to see how the prime minister and foreign secretary trivialise what is at stake in Ukraine by comparing it with culture wars in this country. There are indeed debates to be had about the place of heritage, cancel culture, the policing of speech and gender theory. But the new Tory campaign to connect those arguments with the Ukrainians’ battle for life itself is crass beyond belief.

This war has no obvious end in sight. While it lasts, Johnson fully intends to domesticate its emotional intensity and historic power; to put them at the service of his own electoral objectives. Less than a month into the conflict, he is brazenly framing it as a dramatisation of his own imagined battles against tyranny closer to home. It is grand political larceny on an unconscionable scale.

And by the way: this is not, as an increasing number of Tories would have us believe, “Boris’s Falklands moment” – not least because, unlike Margaret Thatcher 40 years ago, the UK is not actually fighting a war, or sending the armed services into battle. That may indeed be the right decision, given the perils of escalation in a fight with Putin. But Johnson should not then be permitted to get away with slipping on the Churchillian siren suit without cause, and strutting around the globe as a war leader, when he is no such thing.

Not that we should be surprised. How did we imagine the great charlatan and performance artist was going to behave at such a moment? When history came knocking, he was bound to ask: what’s in it for me? He was always going to seek maximum credit for minimum risk: to have his khaki and eat it.