Could The War In Ukraine Save Boris Johnson's Premiership?

One Tory MP said: “When democracy is under threat in the West, why would you destabilise things here by getting rid of our prime minister?"
HuffPost UK

Only a few weeks ago Tory MPs were publicly calling for Boris Johnson’s head on a plate.

Even those who kept quiet were privately furious over Partygate and watching the Conservative Party plunge in the polls.

The scandal managed to unite the party’s various factions and talk was rife over who might succeed him.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss were seen as the clear frontrunners, while the names of Nadhim Zahawi, Ben Wallace and Penny Mordant were also thrown around.

“It’s not a case of whether Boris is going, it’s a case of when and how,” one Tory backbencher told HuffPost UK last month.

“He’ll be gone within the year,” another insisted.

Meanwhile, former Tory cabinet minister David Davis sparked a wave of gasps in the Commons when he told the prime minister: “In the name of God go.”

Two major flash points united MPs against the PM - when he had to apologise to the Queen for Downing Street parties the night before Prince Philip’s funeral and when it was revealed he was the first British prime minister to be interviewed under police caution.

For the sake of Ukraine, Russia and the world – Putin must fail.

— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 1, 2022

However, the mood in Westminster has undergone a radical shift following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

As one backbench Tory MP told HuffPost UK: “When democracy is under threat in the West, why would you destabilise things here by getting rid of our prime minister?

“It doesn’t make any sense and it’s the last thing we need now.”

Coupled with this, a number of Tory MPs do not think the prime minister will be fined by the Metropolitan Police over the Partygate scandal.

One MP who supports the PM said that even if he did receive a fixed penalty notice for attending lockdown-busting parties in Number 10: “Boris will just style it out like Trump.”

While some Tory MPs say their red line is if the PM is found to have misled parliament over the scandal, one commented: “The public don’t really care about technicalities like that.”

His supporters insist they got far more angry emails over Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle scandal than over Partygate.

And Tory MPs say that campaigns to get rid of Johnson have gone completely quiet following Putin’s invasion.

Even Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has given him a stay of execution, saying now was a time for “unity” rather than a changing of the guard in Downing Street.

Certainly Johnson appears to be in his element as he flies around Europe, rallying the West and employing Churchillian rhetoric against Putin.

The prime minister even made a surprise appearance at a Ukrainian Catholic Church in London where he used the parable of the Good Samaritan to emphasise that the UK would not walk by on the other side.

His speech ended with a standing ovation and the congregation chanting “thank you, thank you, thank you”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
LEON NEAL via Getty Images

It is a far cry from the prime minister who just a few weeks ago literally hung his head in an interview when asked about his humiliating apology to the Queen.

Now Johnson is trying to position himself as a can-do guy, standing up to Putin the bully and pushing the international community to go further by blocking Russian access to the Swift international payment system.

Although critics argue he is far too shy on sanctioning oligarchs - an issue Labour MPs think could seriously damage him in the long-term.

The prime minister has made defiant TV and social media addresses - even speaking in Ukrainian and Russian at one point - as well as calling Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on an almost daily basis.

And back home, his backbenchers have been far more willing to cheer him on in the Commons - a stark contrast to how things were just a few short weeks ago.

“He’s much more comfortable talking about war than he is being told off isn’t he?” comments one MP.

The PM’s supporters have been telling newspapers that he has got his “mojo” back and this is his “Falklands moment”.

Even those critical of Johnson are unwilling to change prime minister against the backdrop of war in Europe.

Although one former minister pointed out that Margaret Thatcher was replaced as prime minister by John Major during the first Gulf War.

They said: “If Boris’s friends think Ukraine will save him, they obviously don’t know their history.”

Other seasoned observers think domestic issues further down the line have the ability to skewer the prime minister.

Tax increases will hit people’s pockets in April and will exacerbate the growing cost of living crisis.

A former cabinet minister suggested there was still time for Johnson to bounce back, with the Queen’s Speech an opportunity to reset his agenda and set out some big pledges before a 2024 election.

They predicted that press attention on Ukraine will eventually calm down as the situation becomes more entrenched - and said No10 must start preparing now for the headlines to return to domestic issues.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets members of the Ukrainian community at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Mayfair
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets members of the Ukrainian community at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Mayfair
WPA Pool via Getty Images

And while Partygate and domestic issues loom heavy over the prime minister, it is his MPs' own self-interest that might just finish him off.

One senior Tory suggested MPs would be making a calculation later in the year on whether brand Boris could cost them their seat.

Certainly questions remain over Johnson’s likeability. Tory MPs might not want to boot him out for now, but it remains to be seen whether the public is impressed by the PM’s efforts in Ukraine.

The first major test of this will come at the local elections in May.

Recent polling in The Sunday Times found support for the Tories had dropped to 2005 levels and Johnson, along with half his cabinet, would be on course to lose their seats if an election was held now.

The polling, released just over a week ago, is something senior Tories have been discussing.

And while they are unlikely to say it publicly, a lot of them are skeptical about their ability to hold on to the bulk of red wall seats won during the December 2019 election.

And the polling certainly backed this up, showing they would surrender 55 of the 65 red wall constituencies that contributed to Johnson’s landslide.

The horrific situation unfolding in Ukraine has given Johnson a bit of respite over domestic issues.

As one former cabinet minister wryly commented, Johnson’s future depends on whether he emerges from the latest crisis as “Lady Diana or Sarah Ferguson”.


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