Boris Johnson fled the pressure cooker of Westminster for war-threatened Ukraine today as pro-Kremlin media ruthlessly mocked his Partygate woes and marriage – and Vladimir Putin snubs his phone calls.
Still reeling from news that police are investigating four allegedly lockdown-busting bashes he attended, the PM has arrived in Kiev where he will meet president Volodymyr Zelensky and hold a press conference against the backdrop of Moscow’s menacing military mobilisation.
However, his diplomatic mission has got off to a rocky start after President Putin refused to reschedule their phone conversation – which had to be delayed last night while Mr Johnson fielded furious questions from MPs.
TV channels in Russia have been revelling in his discomfort, with one branding him ‘the most disliked, disrespected and ridiculed character in Britain’ who was ‘completely under the control and heel of his young wife’ Carrie.
They declared that the Partygate report would have ended up in the ‘Victorian sewers’ of London if it were up to the PM.
Deputy PM Dominic Raab tried to shrug off the delay to the call with Mr Putin this morning, saying there are ‘always scheduling issues between any two heads of government’ and claiming Mr Johnson has been ‘leading the transatlantic response’ to the crisis.
Mr Raab said: ‘Any prime minister, any president – it happens all the time – their diaries and their call sheets dart around the place because they are balancing things.’
He told Sky News: ‘This Prime Minister is the one who has been leading the transatlantic response, with the United States, with European allies, with the most robust approach on sanctions, providing support.
Mr Johnson is travelling to Ukraine on a chartered plane from Stansted with staff and a small pool of journalists. Downing Street says his call with Mr Putin is now expected to be tomorrow.
It comes as a Russian warplane breached the airspace of Estonia – where hundreds of British troops are based – in a suspected move to test NATO defences this weekend.
Estonian authorities yesterday handed a protest note to Russian diplomats in Tallinn after a Russian Su-27 fighter jet violated the NATO state’s airspace near the island of Vaindloo in the Gulf of Finland.
The warplane did not post a flight plan and its transponder was switched off as encroached on Estonian territory – a move described by Tallinn ‘a very unfortunate and serious incident’.
As the domestic scandal rages while Mr Johnson turns his focus abroad:
- Mr Johnson told MPs 42 times during his Commons statement last night that they need to wait for the outcome of the police inquiry;
- No10 has refused to commit to making public if Mr Johnson is fined for breaching lockdown laws, with Scotland Yard saying names of those given fixed penalty notices will not be relased;
- Deputy PM Dominic Raab insisted Mr Johnson is ‘getting on with the job’ but dodged giving a full-hearted defence of his swipe at Keir Starmer for failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile. ‘I can’t substantiate that claim,’ Mr Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme;
- Mr Johnson has pledged to take regular ‘strategic advice’ from election guru Lynton Crosby as he tried to appease angry MPs;
- The premier attacked former No10 chief Dominic Cummings comparing him to Shakespearian villain Iago while he is good-natured Othello;
- A snap poll has found two-third of the public do not accept Mr Johnson’s grudging apology over Partygate.
Still reeling from news that police are investigating four allegedly lockdown-busting bashes he attended, the PM has arrived in Kiev where he will meet president Volodymyr Zelensky
The call between Boris Johnson and Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured left) was due to take place yesterday afternoon but is now not expected to happen today. Mr Johnson (right) steps off the plane in Kiev this afternoon
Several Russian TV channels were mocking Boris Johnson yesterday ahead of his planned trip to Ukraine today. NTV branded him ‘the most disliked, disrespected and ridiculed character in Britain’
Estonian authorities yesterday handed a protest note to Russian diplomats in Tallinn after a Russian Su-27 fighter jet violated the NATO state’s airspace near the island of Vaindloo in the Gulf of Finland over the weekend
Boris Johnson was yesterday forced to postpone a call to Vladimir Putin so he could deal with Partygate
Cabinet ignores Partygate as No10 says PM could keep fine from police secret
Boris Johnson and his senior ministers did not discuss the Partygate scandal at a meeting of the Cabinet this morning despite growing Tory fury and warnings the PM should be ‘very worried’ about a coup.
Mr Johnson is desperately trying to stabilise his premiership after senior Conservatives said the ongoing row is corroding the Government like ‘battery acid’.
The premier left the pressure cooker of Westminster following the Cabinet meeting to visit Ukraine after a stripped back version of the Sue Gray report was published yesterday which revealed the PM is being investigated by police over four potential breaches of lockdown law.
The publication of Ms Gray’s update rocked Westminster but Number 10 said the report was not mentioned during the Cabinet meeting.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said Mr Johnson had ‘obviously addressed the House I think for up to two hours yesterday and then spoke to his own MPs at length on this issue’.
He added: ‘The Cabinet this morning was focused on the situation in Ukraine and the domestic priority of levelling up.’
Meanwhile, Number 10 has refused to guarantee that the public would be told if fines were issued for coronavirus breaches at Downing Street.
The PM’s spokesman said: ‘It will be the Met that sets out what they see fit at the conclusion of their work and I would not seek to set out what that may or may not be.’
Mr Johnson suffered a mauling from a slew of Tory MPs in the Commons yesterday, with Theresa May demanding to know if he thought the rules ‘didn’t apply’ to him, and former Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell saying the premier had lost his support.
Mr Mitchell stepped up his attack this morning warning that the row was ‘like battery acid corroding the party’ as he also condemned Mr Johnson’s leadership style.
‘I think this is a crisis that is not going to go away and is doing very great damage to the party. It is more corrosive in my judgement than the expenses scandal was and it will break the coalition that is the Conservative Party,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Even normally-loyal MPs conceded that the PM’s response in the chamber was a ‘car crash’, although Mr Johnson appeared to buy himself some time with a more conciliatory performance at a private meeting with his rank and file last night.
Writing in the Times, Lord Hague criticised Mr Johnson for getting the tone wrong, saying he should have ‘acknowledged that the buck stops with him’ and ought to be ‘very worried about the number of his own MPs who asked unhelpful questions’.
He said: ‘Instead of reinforcing the momentum in his favour, he quite possibly stalled it. If I were him, I would be very worried about the number of his own MPs who asked unhelpful questions at the end of his statement.’
The looming verdict from Scotland Yard – which is sifting through more than 300 photos of Whitehall bashes and could interview both Mr Johnson and wife Carrie within days – could provide a moment of truth for the premier, but he has also been forced to agree that a full, unredacted version of Ms Gray’s report will be published after the criminal process concludes.
Russia is conducting military exercises on a scale ‘never seen before’ on the Ukrainian border, the head of the UK’s armed forces has warned, in ‘a pattern of coercion and intimidation’ against the West.
Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin gave the assessment to a Cabinet meeting before Mr Johnson departed for Ukraine.
Sir Tony said ‘a significant proportion of Russia’s land combat power was now gathered on the western border, coupled with deterrence operations such as military exercises on a scale never seen before’.
No 10 said he warned this ‘fitted into a pattern of coercion and intimidation that sought to undermine the values and principles of the West’.
Mr Johnson told ministers the situation was ‘deeply concerning and that there were no indications of Russia de-escalating with more than 100,000 troops currently amassed on Ukraine’s border’.
But Russia’s state-run Rossiya 1 channel claimed Johnson’s ‘anti-Russian hysteria’ was ‘a way to divert attention from domestic problems’ as he sought to ‘stifle’ the scandal over lockdown-breaking parties.
‘Only anti-Russian sanctions can distract from Johnson’s protracted Partygate,’ the channel concluded.
In a report from London, Gazprom Media-owned NTV channel said: ‘If it were in the power of Boris Johnson, [Sue Gray’s report] would have disappeared into the bowels of the Victorian sewers of the city of London.
‘But this did not happen. The report was delivered to the prime minister at Number 10 – the very residence where the parties took place.
‘Boris Johnson is today the most disliked, disrespected and ridiculed character in Britain.
‘Even schoolchildren are laughing at him.
‘[Dominic Cummings] says Johnson is completely under the control and heel of his young wife, but at the same time has the ambitions of a Roman emperor.’
The channel’s London correspondent Liza Gerson continued: ‘In order to preserve himself, to preserve his political career, Boris Johnson is trying to present himself as a kind of saviour of the whole country.
‘Not just the country but the whole world.
‘He is trying to talk about more global issues, but he is being asked extremely shameful and petty questions.’
Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie face being questioned by detectives probing several lockdown-breaching Whitehall parties ‘within days’ after a trove of evidence was handed to Scotland Yard.
Investigators are examining eight dates on which events are said to have taken place and a spokesman said last night that they had gathered 500 pages of information on the ‘Partygate’ scandal.
Rossiya 1 London correspondent Alexander Khabarov meanwhile reported that the UK intended to double its military contingent in Estonia ‘and intensify British aviation operations in the Black Sea region, where it has decided to send a guided missile destroyer.
‘Johnson calls these containment measures and pretends not to hear Moscow’s repeated statements that Russia is not going to attack anyone.’
The Russian media’s assault on the British Prime Minister came as Estonian authorities yesterday released a statement on the incursion into its airspace by a Russian Su-27 fighter.
‘The jet was in Estonian airspace for less than a minute, but it was flying with the transponder in the off mode and remained out of contact with Estonian air traffic control at the time of violating the Estonian border,’ said the NATO member state.
Moscow has since denied the incident took place, despite having a track record of breaching Estonian airspace.
‘No flights by Russian Su-27 fighter jets were carried out above the Baltic Sea on January 29.
The Russian Aerospace Forces perform all their flights in strict compliance with the international rules of airspace use, above neutral waters, without violating other states’ borders,’ the Moscow defence ministry said.
Britain currently has around 900 soldiers in Estonia, a number expected to double in the coming weeks as NATO deploys foreign troops to eastern Europe, but the small Baltic state is seen as vulnerable to a Russian attack in the event of armed conflict in Ukraine.
Meanwhile new videos showed activity at a Russian military camp in its neighbour and ally Belarus, where the West fears Putin has gathered additional forces.
Another shows large-scale war games involving Russia’s strategic nuclear missile forces in Ivanovo region.
Putin is now believed to have well in excess of 100,000 troops stationed near Ukraine’s borders.
Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin gave an assessment of the Ukraine situation to a Cabinet meeting before Mr Johnson departed for Kiev
The Russian Su-29 fighter jet did not post a flight plan and its transponder was switched off as encroached on Estonian territory – a move described by Tallinn ‘a very unfortunate and serious incident’. (Image of a Russian SU-27 aircraft taken in 2019)
New videos show activity at a Russian military camp in its neighbour and ally Belarus, where the West fears Putin has gathered additional forces
The servicemen of the motorized rifle unit of the combined arms army of Russia’s Eastern Military District have completed the deployment of a field camp in Belarus at the Brestsky training ground
It is suspected that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using ally Belarus to host training camps and to amass further troops to prepare for any conflict in Ukraine (motorised rifle unit of Russia’s Eastern Military District pictured at the Bretsky training ground in Belarus)
Large-scale exercise of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces in Ivanovo Region
Putin is now believed to have up to 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders (military drills pictured in Ivanovo region)
Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy said the reports of the delayed phone call showed there were ‘real world consequences’ of having a Prime Minister fighting for his political survival and ‘a vital diplomatic opportunity has been missed’.
Instead of speaking to Johnson on Monday night, Putin spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron. During the exchange, the pair agreed to maintain a dialogue on implementing the Minsk agreements regarding Donbass, a region of eastern Ukraine where Moscow has backed separatist fighters.
Zelensky today signed a decree to increase the size of Ukraine’s armed forces by 100,000 troops over three years and raise soldiers’ salaries, but insisted the move did not mean war with Russia was imminent.
A Ukrainian serviceman adjusts the strap of his weapon in a trench at a frontline position in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine on Monday, Jan. 31
A photograph shows tanks of the 92nd separate mechanized brigade of Ukrainian Armed Forces parked in their base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region on January 31
Although Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders, Zelenskiy has repeatedly pushed back against warnings by the United States and other NATO allies that Russia could attack Ukraine at any moment.
‘This decree (was prepared) not because we will soon have a war… but so that soon and in the future there will be peace in Ukraine,’ Zelensky said.
There are currently nearly 250,000 people in Ukraine’s armed forces, which are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s.
‘We must be united in domestic politics. You can be in opposition to the government, but you can’t be in opposition to Ukraine,’ Zelensky said.
It comes as Hungarian Defence Minister Tibor Benko yesterday declared that there is no need for NATO to deploy its troops in Hungary, stressing that Hungary is able ‘to perform this task on its own’ in its territory.
Benko’s reluctance to accept a deployment of foreign NATO troops in its territory became evident on the same day that UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace said it was vital to discourage Putin from invading Ukraine by showing NATO’s willingness for combat as a deterrent.
Wallace said it was ‘important to signal to Putin that the very thing he fears, that is, more NATO close to Russia, would be the consequence of invading Ukraine… This is why the UK offered NATO more ground forces, more readiness as a deterrent.’
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is expected to travel to Russia today for talks with Vladimir Putin in which he is likely to ask the Russian President for an increased gas supply.
Orban travels to Moscow in defiance of calls to cancel the trip from opposition parties, who said in a joint statement that it is ‘contrary to our national interests’.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) is expected to travel to Russia today for talks with Vladimir Putin (L) in which he is likely to ask the Russian President for an increased gas supply
Meanwhile, the US ambassador to the United Nations yesterday alleged Russia will send another 30,000 troops to the Ukrainian border.
‘We’ve seen evidence that Russia intends to expand that presence to more than 30,000 troops near the Belarus-Ukraine border, less than two hours north of Kyiv by early February,’ US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
White House Press secretary Jen Psaki said: ‘Russia has the power. They are the aggressor here. They have the power and ability to de-escalate, to pull their troops back from the border, to not push more troops to Belarus, to take steps to deescalate the situation on the ground.’
But Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya accused the US of ‘whipping up hysterics’ by calling for Monday’s UN Security Council meeting to discuss Ukraine, a nod towards their claim that Putin does not intend to invade his eastern European neighbour.
‘The discussions about a threat of war is provocative in and of itself. You are almost calling for this, you want it to happen,’ Nebenzia said.
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya (L) yesterday accused the US of ginning up ‘hysterics’ and ‘brainwashing’ Ukrainians at a heated United Nations Security Council meeting. US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (R) said she was ‘disappointed’ but not ‘surprised’ by his comments and claimed Moscow is mobilizing 30,000 more troops to send to the Belarus-Ukraine border
In light of the movements and threat posed in Eastern Europe, the US ordered family members of its government employees currently in Belarus to leave the country.
The State Department said: ‘Due to an increase in unusual and concerning Russian military activity near the border with Ukraine, US citizens located in or considering travel to Belarus should be aware that the situation is unpredictable and there is heightened tension in the region.’
Last Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken extended a diplomatic proposal to step away from a potential conflict on a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Blinken described the US proposal as something that offers Russia ‘a serious diplomatic path forward,’ but assured that NATO allied nations did not bow to Russia’s demand that it bar ex-Soviet bloc countries from entering the 30-country military alliance.
Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are set to share another phone call later today.
Britain and the United States also said yesterday they were looking at targeting people in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle with sanctions, including powerful business allies.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told parliament that the government was looking at ‘the toughest sanctions regime against Russia we’ve ever had’.
‘Those in and around the Kremlin will have nowhere to hide,’ she said.