Putin’s looming threat gives Johnson some breathing space


Show caption Boris Johnson’s lies are nothing to those being told by Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK parliament/AFP/Getty Images The politics sketch Putin’s looming threat gives Johnson some breathing space John Crace With the spotlight on Ukraine, the heat is temporarily off for The Suspect, who could even flirt with some fresh fibs at PMQs @JohnJCrace Wed 23 Feb 2022 20.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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Boris Johnson is in his happy place. The Russian invasion of Ukraine couldn’t have come at a better time. At a stroke, people have stopped asking him awkward questions about the cost of living and the price of fuel. Better still, both Labour and – more importantly – Tory MPs have also suspended hostilities on Partygate. At a time of imminent war in eastern Europe, a united front must be maintained at home. Just in case Vladimir Putin happens to be watching and starts taking our threats seriously. Not that there’s much sign of that so far. But we can live in hope.

So, for The Suspect, the heat is off temporarily. He can swan around doing his Churchill tribute act – “We shall fight them on the tennis courts. We shall fight them in the Tory party fundraising auctions. We shall never give up” – safe in the knowledge that right now it’s hard for him to screw things up too badly. No one is coming after him and there is no vote of no confidence imminent. Because however many lies he happens to tell, they are nothing to those being told by Vladimir Putin. And his corruption is amateur hour when compared with the delusional venality of the Russian president. Though it’s obviously something to which he can aspire.

All of which made prime minister’s questions a curiously subdued affair with both The Suspect and Keir Starmer on their best behaviour. Something that came far easier to the Labour leader as he is by far the more serious politician. Even in an international crisis, Johnson can’t totally conceal his inherent levitas. At heart he still thinks the whole thing is a bit of a game.

Starmer began by making it clear he was going to go easy on Boris. For the good of the country. The last thing people wanted to see at such a time was politicians squabbling and point-scoring. So he was thoroughly behind the efforts of the UK and other Nato countries to deter Putin. He was – as he had said the day before – just disappointed that the sanctions had been so feeble. The Russian president must have been delighted. That’s if he had even noticed.

Steady on old chap, The Suspect replied. While he was very grateful to have the support of the Labour party in principle, he did want to point out that sanctioning five small banks and three individuals who had already been sanctioned by the US since 2018 was actually a massive deal.

Not only had it caused Putin to rethink his invasion plans but it had given other oligarchs time to liquidate their assets and get their cash out of the country. Which was a good thing, no? Johnson didn’t really seem to have much of a grasp how sanctions were supposed to work. In any case, it was important to remember that this was just the first phase of an internationally coordinated response. So our next sanctions would be marginally less pathetic. The UK’s role was to always look a soft touch compared with other countries.

The Labour leader then moved on to RT television. Surely it was time to have it banned? As it happened, Nadine Dorries had already written to Ofcom about this, The Suspect said. Though there had to be a place in the UK media for outlets that tolerated lies and made-up stories. Otherwise Johnson would never have had a career at the Telegraph. As for donations from Russian oligarchs, he wasn’t going to pay them back because he was sure the Tory party had never taken them. And just to be on the safe side, he definitely wasn’t going to investigate because who knew what you might find once you started.

Sensing that they might be on the verge of kicking lumps out of each other in their usual adversarial style, Starmer and The Suspect backed off. The Labour party offers its full support etc. The government appreciates the opposition’s full support etc. Only the Labour leader managed to sound halfway sincere.

In keeping with the mood, most Tory backbenchers went out of their way to avoid asking Johnson anything difficult about Ukraine, parties or the cost of living and in return he congratulated them on doing whatever it was they did. He still gives the impression of having no idea who any of them are.

Others weren’t so docile. Caroline Lucas tried to ask about Russian involvement in UK elections. Her question went on a bit and she got drowned out by Tory MPs shouting her down as they tried to protect their leader from all too believable truths. Lindsay Hoyle did himself no favours in his failure to allow Lucas to be heard.

The most telling intervention came from Margaret Hodge who wanted to know if it was possible to sanction members of the Duma. “It’s quite a thing to sanction parliamentarians,” said The Suspect. Inadvertently giving away far more than intended. Because few parliamentarians have more experience of getting away with things than Johnson. He knows he’s lied to the police. To parliament. To everyone. And he still reckons he’ll get away unscathed. People in power are untouchable. At heart, Boris is just another oligarch manque. Only without the billions.

Rejoicing in his freedom, The Suspect went on to tell some lies. He’d forgotten how naturally it came to him. The UK was the first to appreciate the seriousness of Ukraine. Alex Salmond was a member of the SNP. He was on the point of telling the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn was still its leader when Hoyle called time. Labour’s Chris Bryant made a point of order. For the first time ever, Johnson had apologised for lying to the house. About Roman Abramovich facing sanctions.

It had taken the fear of reprisals from a Russian oligarch to get him to do the decent thing. The sanctions were working. Just in the opposite way to what had been intended.