Boris Johnson relies on “waffle, charm [and] delay” to avoid answering tough questions about Britain’s future, one of the Tories’ most respected figures claimed today.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine launched the attack after the Foreign Secretary gave a typically hyperbole-filled interview to ITV’s Peston on Sunday show this morning.
ITV’s Political Editor Robert Peston struggled to get Johnson to answers his questions on the Brexit and the Budget, although the former London Mayor was clear in his criticism of Russian foreign policy.
Appearing later on the show, Lord Heseltine – sacked last week as a Government advisor for voting in favour of Parliament getting a “meaningful” vote on the Brexit deal – was forthright in his criticism.
After accusing Johnson of talking “rubbish” by claiming no deal with the EU post-Brexit would not damage the UK economy, the peer said: “When I listen to Boris, who I like actually, he took over from me in Henley, he has turned the art of political communication into a science in which waffle charm, delay, anything to stop actually answering questions.
“He does it magnificently.”
As well as discussing the upcoming Brexit negotiations, Johnson seemed to refuse to confirm whether a controversial tax hike on self-employed workers would go ahead.
Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in the Budget on Wednesday that National Insurance contributions (NICs) for millions of people would rise by two per cent by 2019.
Within minutes of the revelation, the Tories were under attack for breaking a 2015 manifesto pledge not to increase NICs, and Conservative backbenchers soon hit the airwaves calling for the policy to be scrapped.
Prime Minister Theresa May fuelled speculation of a u-turn on Thursday evening, when she said the measures would not be in the Budget Bill and a paper would be published this summer “which will explain the full effects of the changes.”
After being asked if the NICs rise was “definitely going to happen”, Johnson replied: “The Chancellor has made it very clear that you’ve got to deal with, and the Prime Minister has made it clear, you’ve got to deal with an unfairness in the system and you’ve also got to create the conditions for sustainable growth.
“We will come forward later in the year with the provisions to enact what the Chancellor has set out in the Budget.”
Labour’s former Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn mocked the debacle around the Budget, and said: “It makes the pasty tax look like the model of professionalism.”
Turning to his imminent trip to Russia – the first by a UK Foreign Secretary for five years – Johnson warned Moscow is up to “all sorts of dirty tricks” on the world stage.
He said: “Bringing down French TV stations, you’ve seen what happened in the United States where there is no question at all that they were involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Convention.
“You’ve seen what happened in Montenegro where there was an attempted coup in a European state and possibly even an attempted assassination of the leader of that state.
“There is very little doubt that the Russians are behind these things.”
Johnson is set to be the first UK Foreign Secretary in five years to visit Russia, but the Foreign Office has been quick to point out that the trip does not represent a return to “business as usual” between the two countries.
Since the last Foreign Secretary’s trip to Russia – William Hague in 2012 – Moscow has overseen the annexing of Crimea from Ukraine, supported President Assad in Syria and been accused by the UK of ordering the 2006 murder of regime critic Alexander Litvinenko in London.
Asked about claims of Russian hacking, Johnson said: “We have no evidence that the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic process at the moment. We don’t actually have that evidence.
“But what we do have is plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that. And there is no doubt that they’ve been up to all sorts of dirty tricks.”