PM back on attack as UK rallies against Russia

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson, besieged for weeks by scandal and economic crisis, is back on the offensive as he unites Britain’s warring politicians against a common enemy in Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

While the “partygate” scandal could return to haunt him, for now, Johnson has regained his oratorical swagger after Putin ordered Russian forces to enter Ukraine.

Awoken around 4:00 am on Thursday with news of the invasion; he spent the day invoking the wartime defiance and rhetorical tropes of his political hero Winston Churchill.

“This is not, in the infamous phrase, ‘some faraway country of which we know little’,” he said, recalling the words of Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain when appeasing Adolf Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.

“We cannot and will not just look away,” Johnson said in a sombre address to the nation, even as he ruled out deploying UK troops to Ukraine.

As the crisis worsened this week, Johnson has dropped all pretence of diplomatic politeness towards Putin, omitting the title of “president” and casting him now as a “dictator”.

“He will never be able to cleanse the blood of Ukraine from his hands,” he told a hushed House of Commons before ordering Ukraine’s flag to be flown on government buildings and its national colours to light up 10 Downing Street.

Opposition leaders are mindful of the anxious public mood as Britons watch on aghast at the eruption of potentially Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II.

“Putin wants to see division among our allies, among our NATO members, and among political parties back here in the United Kingdom,” Labour’s Keir Starmer told ITV News on Friday.

“And we are not going to be divided,” he said.

Some of Johnson’s harshest Conservative critics have also now rallied behind a united front, muting their attacks on his leadership following the scandal over lockdown parties in Downing Street.

Tory opponents of his government’s legally binding coronavirus restrictions have also been placated after he ordered their removal from this week.

Short attention spans

Johnson’s spokesman deflected questions about the politics of the Ukraine crisis but noted his “appreciation for the whole of the House speaking with one voice” in condemning the Kremlin.

Starmer welcomed Johnson’s confirmation that the government will now accelerate the passage of an “Economic Crime Bill”, notably to prise open the real ownership of Russian-held assets.

Only on Tuesday, after Putin recognised two breakaway regions of Ukraine, Johnson had said the bill would be delayed to later in the year.

It is seen as a crucial brick in the buttress of UK sanctions after oligarchs were able to process their riches through London, having gotten wealthy devouring the spoils of Russia’s post-Soviet collapse.

But Starmer also chided Johnson for not going further with two rounds of sanctions this week, which cumulatively have targeted only eight named oligarchs.

The prime minister’s Conservatives are themselves accused of taking Russian-sourced money and granting preferential access to powerbrokers in return. The party insists all its donations comply with the law.

Tom Keatinge, an expert on financial crime at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, said Tuesday’s first round of UK sanctions was akin to “taking a peashooter to a gunfight”.

Thursday’s second round, including measures designed to shut down Russia’s access to UK financial markets, “does begin to deliver on the threatened massive consequences”, he said.

The crisis has focused Westminster minds after a period in which Johnson was on the ropes, reeling from the “partygate” revelations and an inflation-fuelled crisis driving up Britons’ cost of living.

The respite may be short-lived, cautioned Tim Bale, a close watcher of the Conservative party at Queen Mary University of London.

London’s police force has yet to conclude its investigation into the lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street, which could yet put Johnson back in hot water.

“All eyes are now on Ukraine but the public’s attention span — especially for foreign affairs — is not, for good or ill, that long,” he said.

“Unless the Met (police) reports in the next few days, then I suspect this will be a temporary distraction rather than some kind of permanent reprieve for the prime minister.”

By Jitendra JOSHI

© Agence France-Presse