Boris Johnson has left the country - but that hasn’t stopped him from annoying his backbenchers. The Prime Minister is visiting Ukraine today to meet with President Zelensky. He’s announced that the UK will expand its training capacity for Ukrainian forces to process up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days.
That ought to be a visit that wins universal applause within the Tory party. Yet while there is near-unanimity across the Conservative parliamentary party at the need to support Kyiv’s struggle against Russia, some are unhappy with the timing of Johnson’s announcement and sudden trip abroad.
The Prime Minister was due to speak today at the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs. The caucus boasts a membership of around 55 and is headed by onetime Boris backer Jake Berry. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove was originally meant to be the keynote speaker but that was changed in recent weeks to make way for the PM instead.
It was viewed as a chance to get levelling up back on the political agenda and heal wounds within the party, following last week’s bruising confidence vote. Colleagues planned to greet Johnson on stage with a series of demands, including greater fiscal autonomy for regions to raise and cut taxes. Instead, the Prime Minister backed out with little notice and Michael Gove appeared via videolink from Manchester.
A number of NRG members were annoyed at Johnson’s last minute decision, which broke in the middle of the conference following the morning sessions. Some viewed the timing as a snub; others as a cynical calculation to recapture the earlier success of past visits to Kyiv. One NRG member at the event told me: 'I'm quite pissed off, to be honest. Him coming was the whole point of the conference.’
Another pointed out that just 32 MPs were all that stood between victory and defeat in last week’s confidence vote. ‘We’ve got dozens of members and with so many on the fence, it’s short-sighted to look like he’s taking us for granted. Obviously we support Ukraine but couldn’t he have made the announcement by Zoom, like he sent Michael to do?’ One senior NRG source added: ‘Clearly, we are disappointed. We were elected on levelling up, it was the central theme of our campaign The PM needs allies, and this is not the way to win colleagues over.'
Even one vocal supporter of Johnson admitted he was ‘disappointed’ by the decision though he added that ‘Ukraine [is] more important in my opinion.’ Such discontent though has been confined to private discussions: other prominent northern Tories are keen to declare their support for Johnson’s visit.
Ben Houchen, the Mayor of Tees Valley, received a number of positive mentions at the conference. He also missed the occasion for a trip to drum up trade with Albania but was quick to tweet in support of Johnson: ‘To all the rubbish being spouted on Twitter at the moment, Ukraine's fight against Russia is absolutely more important than the PM attending a conference of Red Wall Tory politicians.’ Simon Clarke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, weighed in too saying Johnson ‘is literally leading high level talks’ and that ‘I think people seriously need to check their priorities’ something he says ‘as a Red Wall MP myself.’
Ironically, the conference which was meant to help heal Tory wounds in the north has only helped expose them once again.