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Sensemaker: Flyaway Johnson

Sensemaker: Flyaway Johnson

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The US State Department said Putin’s claim of victory in Mariupol was “yet more misinformation”.
  • The UK made plans to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol in defiance of EU and international law if unionist parties boycott the province’s power-sharing executive after elections next month. 
  • Scientists prepared to restart the Large Hadron Collider after a three-year refurbishment. 

Flyaway Johnson

Last time it was Poland. Before that he disappeared at awkward moments to Chequers and Mustique. This time the UK’s prime minister has flown 4,000 miles to India, to forge new ties and escape a scandal that clings to him instead like a bad smell.

Boris Johnson’s position, loyalists say, is safe. And yet…

  • as of yesterday Johnson is the subject of not one but three investigations into whether he broke his own laws during lockdown and lied about it to parliament;
  • it’s already clear he did both these things, since he told the House of Commons all lockdown rules were followed in Downing Street and was then fined for breaking them;
  • the support he now enjoys from MPs who called for him to quit two months ago could evaporate if, as expected, more fines are announced and his party loses councils in local elections two weeks from today.

Johnson left behind a body politic in ferment over how long he can go on as its head. His party depends on donors who no longer trust him. Its Welsh and Scottish branches see him as a liability, and all of its three living ex-prime ministers have publicly fallen out with him: David Cameron on aid and inflation; Theresa May on Covid, Brexit, Afghanistan and partygate; John Major on all of the above plus character and “political corruption”. 

Yesterday didn’t help. As he promoted British diggers in Gujarat a U-turn by his government saw MPs nod through a new investigation into whether he misled parliament over the Downing Street parties, having hours earlier been asked to vote to delay it. 

The new probe (by the Commons’ privileges committee) may not report until the autumn but it’s already made Johnson’s position tougher.

  • It signals more disquiet on his backbenches than carefully curated displays of support suggests. It’s understood dozens of MPs including multiple members of government made clear to whips their objections to blocking an inquiry so near to local elections. Interventions from senior backbenchers Steve Baker and William Wragg to say they’d be backing the inquiry showed their rebellion isn’t over. 
  • Johnson’s new whipping operation seems to have underestimated MPs’ unhappiness. Around a third had signalled their backing was conditional on the outcome of the forthcoming Sue Gray report – but whips took their support for granted anyway. The result was chaos: from wrecking amendment to no amendment, then from free-vote to no vote at all.

The probe is different in two key ways from the existing Gray and police investigations:

  • Party pictures. “Will we see the pictures?” asks a Labour source. Maybe. Gray has collected 300 photos taken at the outlawed parties and the privileges committee can request and publish them. 
  • Misleading parliament. Johnson is alleged to have lied four times to the House of Commons. This investigation will focus specifically on whether he knowingly misled lawmakers. If found guilty, he could be suspended from parliament. 

If partygate were Johnson’s only domestic headache and its ripples didn’t spread far beyond Westminster he might sleep easy, but it isn’t and they do.  


  • Five major party donors publicly raised concerns about partygate in January. Between them, they’ve given almost £10 million to the Conservatives. Only one, John Caudwell, has since rowed back on calls for Johnson to resign. The other four didn’t respond when contacted this week. 
  • They include donors like Lord Michael Spencer and Peter Hargreaves, credited with raising far more for the party than has come from their own pockets. Lord Spencer is estimated to have raised around £100 million while Hargreaves helped the Tories raise £3.6 million in one week of the 2019 election campaign (compared with £5.4 million in total donations to Labour for the whole campaign). 
  • There’s new scrutiny of foreign and property money, which forced Johnson’s old ally Eddie Lister out of Number Ten last year before his second job as a property consultant became an embarrassment; and which augurs ill for Ben Elliott, the Conservatives’ co-chairman, under fire for his concierge firm’s ties to Russia.
  • The Electoral Commission has yet to release figures for donations made in 2022, so the full impact of partygate on party coffers is unknown. But donors are a bellwether for the party. Funding it is going to get harder, and so is persuading it to rally behind Johnson.

The nations

  • The Conservatives are heading for a shellacking in the local elections in Wales and Scotland, where Johnson is conspicuously absent from campaign materials.
  • Polls show Labour up 8 points and the Tories down by 13 in Wales compared with 2017. In Scotland, the numbers are plus 9 and minus 10 respectively.
  • There’s no mention of Johnson in the Conservative manifesto in either country, though his name does crop up in a Facebook post by councillor Jackie Mackinnon, a Tory candidate in Dumfries and Galloway: “It’s my name on the ballot paper, not Boris.”

The party at prayer. Church of England clergy tend to skew left compared with their parishioners but there’s a groundswell of anger aimed directly at Johnson from the country’s pulpits that could be more damaging than he admits. The Archbishop of Canterbury unleashed a broadside on his Rwanda plan for refugees in his Easter sermon. By then the bishops of Leeds, Chichester and Kensington had already called for him to go because of partygate. If the church sees no reason to wait for the verdict of formal inquiries, why should MPs?

Backbenchers. The list of Tory MPs who’ve called time publicly on Johnson since his fine is shorter than before it. The names of the righteous are: Mark Harper, Aaron Bell, Craig Whittaker, Nigel Mills, Caroline Nokes, Anthony Mangnall, Sir Gary Streeter, Tobias Ellwood, Peter Aldous and Steve Baker, the ardent Brexiter who backed Johnson last week but on Tuesday, appalled by the PM’s failure to show the same contrition at party meeting as he had minutes earlier in the Commons, told him “the gig’s up”.

For now, most of Johnson’s footsoldiers are cleaving to the party line that Ukraine and the cost of living matter more to voters than lying about lockdown parties. But… 

  • It’s hard: Jacob Rees-Mogg has been reduced to half-baked cricket analogies to explain why breaking the law and misleading parliament are not resigning matters, and Fay Jones MP failed utterly last night to answer a simple question about whether Johnson should go if the investigations find against him.
  • Downing Street will know the argument that Johnson is vital for Ukraine’s military success is fragile at best, and next month’s elections are likely to show that the cost of living cuts both ways.

The grassroots. Polls suggest fewer party activists want Johnson to resign now than did in January. Three senior members of the Grassroots Conservatives group said the “massive anger” they saw a few months ago has subsided. “The tide has changed”, they said. “He’s apologised” and “there’s now the whiff of a witch hunt” about efforts to oust him.

There’s also no clear alternative. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has “blotted his copybook” by failing to be more open about his wife’s tax affairs, according to one grassroots member, while likely contenders Ben Wallace and Liz Truss will want to avoid the perception they are manoeuvring while the war in Ukraine continues. 

And yet the mood is febrile, in Westminster and the country. A vote of no confidence is a matter of when, not if, says Ellwood. “Now is not the time,” say waverers. But the Ukraine emergency will pass its peak and voters will have their say, and then all bets are off.


Rebuilding Ukraine 
Ukraine’s President Zelensky told the World Bank yesterday his country needs $7 billion a month from foreign donors to keep functioning, and will need hundreds of billions to rebuild. He put the cost of Russian damage to infrastructure, housing, schools, hospitals and businesses so far at $550 billion. The bank, oddly, put it at $60 billion. Either they are measuring different things or measuring them in different ways. The question of who pays will in any case be fraught, since justice demands that Russia foot the bill but the 20th century history of reparations says they can catastrophically backfire. 


Myanmar at war
It’s 14 months since the generals seized power in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi is on trial, charged with a long list of made-up crimes. Foreign firms have left. Most international media attention has shifted to Ukraine via Afghanistan – but there’s a war on. Rather than submit, Myanmar’s young democrats have fought back in increasingly organised militia formations risking everything from remote jungle bases where the national army has not yet been able to confront them. Last night’s Newsnight had extraordinary footage from one of the camps, following a 20 year-old recruit through basic training and into a battle in which he lost a close friend. Watch from minute 25. 


OneWeb is a go
One of the deals Boris Johnson has announced while partygate hangs over his head is for Indian rockets to be used to launch OneWeb satellites. Co-owned by the UK government and Bharti Global, an Indian conglomerate, the company’s goal is for satellites to provide unfettered global web access, much like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s newer venture, Kuiper. But OneWeb has a more complex history than either. After being bailed out in 2020 by the UK government among others, its planned launches in Kazakhstan were halted last month after the head of the Russian space agency demanded that the UK sell its stake in the company. OneWeb briefly turned to SpaceX for help but the new deal should enable the launch of the rest of its 648 satellites. How much stuff in space is too much stuff in space? This from the Guardian suggests we may be close to a tipping point. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

War crime consequences
Evidence of war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine continues to mount. US satellite imagery has revealed mass graves 85 metres long in a village outside Mariupol, and the i reports on increasing requests for abortion pills, emergency contraceptives and HIV treatments as a consequence of Russian soldiers raping women and children. One group that provides access to abortion and abortion pills for women in Poland is now sending convoys to areas Russian troops are leaving. The group exists partly as a result of Poland’s ban on abortion except in cases of rape and incest last year. To prove the rape, a criminal case needs to be brought and there is scant hope of a successful prosecution. “This is not something that should be happening in the 21st century in the European Union,” says Kinga Jelińska of Abortion without Borders. But it is.  

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Full cut-off

The climate and energy quote of the week is from Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister. Speaking about Russian imports at a meeting with her Baltic counterparts on Wednesday, she said: “We will halve oil by the summer and will be at zero by the end of the year, and then gas will follow… I therefore say here clearly and unequivocally, yes, Germany is also completely phasing out Russian energy imports.” The key words are “follow” and “also”. “Follow” because Germany imports more Russian gas than oil and it’s still not clear when the gas cut-off will come. “Also” because Baerbock was in me-too mode. The Baltics have already stopped using any Russian gas and have been howling at Berlin for not joining their embargo. Berlin-watchers say the new Scholz government likes to get its ducks in a row before acting and then let its actions do the talking – as it did suspending Nord Stream 2.

Today is Earth Day, by the way. Gaia will be weeping at the rush back to oil and gas to make up for Russian shortfalls. But Baerbock’s promise is huge, if kept. If you aren’t already, sign up to our Net Zero Sensemaker as we build an agenda for climate action following Cop26

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Lara Spirit

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Phoebe Davis and Ed Barnes.

Photographs Getty Images

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