Boris Johnson is heading to Ukraine where over the border more than 100,000 Russian troops are gathering – as he fights for his premiership after the publication of the Sue Gray report.
The prime minister will hold talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv in a show of support for Ukraine as tensions on the country’s border rise amid fears of an invasion by Mr Putin’s forces.
Mr Johnson’s visit will coincide with the UK announcing £88m of new funding for Ukraine to support stability there and help reduce its reliance on Russian energy supplies.
Mr Johnson said: “It is the right of every Ukrainian to determine how they are governed. As a friend and a democratic partner, the UK will continue to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of those who seek to destroy it.
“We urge Russia to step back and engage in dialogue to find a diplomatic resolution and avoid further bloodshed.”
The PM said on Monday evening he still hopes to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin to try to defuse the Ukraine crisis after a planned phone call between them was cancelled.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was meant to be accompanying Mr Johnson but on Monday night she said she tested positive for COVID-19 so will be staying behind.
She had earlier appeared without a face mask on the front bench in the House of Commons before announcing a strengthening of sanctions legislation that will give the UK the power to target any company or person linked to the Russian state.
Ukraine’s president will surely question if Boris Johnson’s focus is on Kyiv
Boris Johnson, on a flying visit to Kyiv, seems keen to take a leading role amongst Britain’s allies in confronting Russia over Ukraine and threats to wider European security.
His critics question whether he is seizing on this foreign crisis to deflect from mounting political woes at home.
But there is no doubt that Ukraine’s government needs and is hugely appreciative of any UK support given the threat it has faced from Moscow since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the recent massing of more than 100,000 Russian troops near its borders.
Still, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy surely will not be able to help but wonder whether his visitor has other things on his mind than the prospect of invading Russians.
Mr Johnson had to delay a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday – a key element in what is meant to be a high-impact week of British diplomacy – because he was in the Commons fending off questions about parties during COVID lockdown
In another blow, the prime minister will be travelling to Kyiv solo after his foreign secretary, Liz Truss, tested positive for coronavirus.
However, despite all the – forced and unforced – distractions, the UK has still managed to fly out plane-loads of anti-tank weapons – some 2,000 in total – to Ukraine along with a team of around 30 specialist military trainers to teach the Ukrainian armed forces how to use the kit.
Britain has also taken a prominent role in helping Ukraine’s navy to rebuild after it was decimated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, where its headquarters were based.
Outside Ukraine, the UK has pledged to send hundreds more troops to join a NATO deployment on the alliance’s eastern flank if needed.
That mission, established six years ago, is designed to deter any Russian attack on a NATO member rather than directly prevent a new offensive against Ukraine, which is not – yet at least – part of the transatlantic alliance.
But NATO’s 30 member states have yet to agree on any expansion of their footprint in the east, such as the Baltic States, and the Black Sea region in the southeast.
Sue Gray report overshadows PM’s visit
Ms Truss then attended a packed meeting of Tory MPs where Mr Johnson was making his case to keep his job following the release of the Sue Gray report into lockdown parties at Downing Street and Whitehall.
The report was pared back due to the recently announced Metropolitan Police investigation into 12 out of 16 events in 2020 and 2021 while COVID restrictions were in place – including the PM’s birthday celebration and a gathering in his Downing Street flat.
Sue Gray report: Main comments
- There was a “serious failure” to observe high standards expected in the heart of government
- A lack of thought was given in considering the
- Excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace
- Some staff wanted to raise concerns but felt they were not always able to
Mr Johnson promised to make major changes to the way No 10 and the civil service is run after apologising and insisting: “I get it and I will fix it”.
Despite Ms Gray’s limited update on her investigation, she was still scathing about the culture and leadership that led to the events while the country was abiding by strict restrictions.
Opposition MPs used Mr Johnson’s statement in the Commons to again call for his resignation, with Sir Keir Starmer accusing the PM of “hiding behind a police investigation” and the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford being escorted out of the Commons for refusing to withdraw accusations Mr Johnson lied to parliament.
Strong criticism from Tory MPs
Despite Mr Johnson trying to woo Conservative MPs to support his leadership, more Tory MPs spoke out against the PM.
Former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell told the Commons that the PM no longer has his backing.
Angela Richardson, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove’s aide, announced on Monday afternoon she resigned from her role last week over the partygate scandal.
Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said if Mr Johnson fails to publish the Sue Gray report in full “he will no longer have my support”.
And former PM Theresa May said her successor “had not read the rules or didn’t understand what they meant and others around him, or they didn’t think the rules applied to Number 10”.
Conservative MP Aaron Bell said he was unable to hug his family after travelling hundreds of miles to go to his grandmother’s funeral in 2020 and asked: “Does the prime minister think I’m a fool?”
Andrew Bridgen told Sky News the “buck stops with the PM” and he thinks “this is death by 100 cuts, damaging again, his support is ebbing away slowly”.
But others spoke out in his support, with Gary Sambrook, who is a 2019 intake MP – of which many have called for the PM to go – saying “we love” Mr Johnson.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries staunchly defended the PM as she denied he was the subject of a criminal investigation, despite Ms Gray confirming police are looking into events Mr Johnson reportedly attended.