We are in day seven of the Ukraine war and so far things have been going pretty well for Boris Johnson. He has denounced Russia in terms supported by most of the country, his updates to the Commons have been well received, the Ukrainian President has clearly welcomed the military support he is receiving from the UK, and on the stage international, Johnson appears to have had some success in pushing the allies to tougher positions (particularly on Swift). The standing ovation given to the Ukrainian ambassador was emotional (especially for those in the room, my colleagues tell me) and Johnson may have ended the applause thinking he could spend the next 30 minutes avoid violent attacks and engage in consensual dialogues with Putin. denigrate.
But he didn’t have an easy ride at all. It may not have been a disaster, but it was a deeply uncomfortable family quarters for the Prime Minister, which left him looking compromised and exposed.
Johnson has faced repeated criticism, on two issues. First, there have been complaints that the UK should follow the EU and take a much more generous approach to Ukrainians fleeing war and seeking refuge. Labor pushed this argument, and in PMQs it was also strongly supported by Scottish and Welsh nationalists (who represent countries where the political consensus on immigration is quite different from that of England). Johnson is probably only prime minister because he has embraced a political cause fueled by public concern over migration from Eastern Europe, but he has to wonder if on this issue he is now on the wrong side of public opinion. The poll certainly suggests that he is. (See 11:56.)
But on Ukrainian refugees, Johnson at least has an answer. Asked by Keir Starmer about sanctions, and in particular that the government has yet to impose sanctions on named oligarchs, Johnson was floundering because he had no credible answers at all.
To illustrate the point here (from PA Media) are Starmer’s first three questions. He started with this:
We must stand up to Putin and those who support his regime. Roman Abramovich is the owner of Chelsea Football Club and various other valuable assets in the UK. He is a person of interest to the Interior Ministry because of his ties to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activities and practices. Last week, the prime minister said Abramovich faces sanctions. He then corrected the record to say it was not. Well, why the hell isn’t it?
Johnson said it would not be ‘appropriate’ to comment on individual cases at this stage – before saying later the government would release ‘a full list of everyone associated with Putin’s regime’.
Starmer’s next question was about another oligarch.
Last week, Putin summoned the cronies who support his regime to the Kremlin, they dip their hands in Putin’s war blood. Among them was Igor Shuvalov, Putin’s former deputy prime minister. Shuvalov has two apartments, less than a five-minute walk from this house. They are worth over £11million. He is on the EU sanctions list, but he is not on the UK sanctions list. When will the Prime Minister fix this?
Johnson also dodged this one, saying he was “proud of what we’ve already done.”
Starmer then again asked about Shuvalov.
We only know which oligarch is hiding under [the shell company that owns Shuvalov’s flats] due to information obtained and disclosed by Alexei Navalny. Navalny, of course, was poisoned by the Russian state and now sits in a Putin prison. Transparency is essential to eradicate corruption. It should be in our act, but it’s not. And I’m ashamed that we only know about Shuvalov’s Westminster apartments because a dissident risked his life. Is the prime minister?
In response, Johnson claimed the UK was “doing everything we could to expose ill-gotten Russian spoils”. But that boast is false – as Chris Bryant illustrated when he backtracked on the government’s failure to sanction Russian figures. Starmer has not directly collected the large sums given to the Conservative Party by Russia-linked donors over the years, but another Labor MP, Bill Esterson, has – possibly a sign that Labor MPs are coordinating their questions with the first bench?
If so, it works, because collectively Starmer and his colleagues have built a strong case against the government. (A Tory MP, Bob Seely – a prominent Commons hawk on Russia – also contributed, adding to the Prime Minister’s embarrassment.) Journalists have written about Tory ties to wealthy Russians for years, but he has been difficult to prove that the ministers are in the pocket of pro-Kremlin oligarchs. This is because a) it’s never quite clear how close these donors are to Vladimir Putin (although they tend not to be fierce critics of Putin – because it’s the Russians who end up dying in the UK under mysterious circumstances); and b) it is not clear what they are getting for their money (favors for Putin or protection from Putin?).
But the impression remains that something murky is going on, and Johnson’s failure today to explain why the sanctions are not being enforced more vigorously will not have helped.