Westminster Has United Against Putin After Months Of Scandal And In-Fighting
This week has seen parliamentarians from both sides of the political divide unite in furious condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
It is a marked contrast to a chaotic few months, punctuated by highly charged exchanges between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Keir Starmer over allegations of parties in Downing Street during lockdown.
Just weeks ago many Tory MPs appeared to agree with Labour’s assertion that Johnson was not fit to lead his party or the country. But on Thursday, as Johnson dished out a severe set of sanctions against Russia, Starmer could be seen nodding along to his Commons statement. Johnson in turn offered a long and detailed response to Bury South MP Christian Wakeford, who over a month ago defected to Labour in a dramatic protest against the PM.
“Everyone knows Putin’s playbook, which is to sow division among his enemies and exploit them,” a senior Labour source told PoliticsHome.
“We in the west owe it to our friends and allies at the frontline of Russia’s war of aggression to stick together.
“We must do so in the name of democracy and freedom. We’ll continue to push for tougher sanctions and for action domestically – all in the name of opposing the Kremlin, supporting the Ukrainian people and working with our NATO allies”.
Conservative MPs say the magnitude of the crisis facing the West following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pretty much shelved talk of replacing Johnson, even if he receives a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) from the Metropolitan police in the near future over his possible involvement in the lockdown party scandal.
“The stuff we were talking about a few weeks ago felt really important, and whether the PM was truthful about the parties is obviously important, but [the Ukraine-Russia crisis] is really, really fucking important,” a former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome.
A pro-Rishi Sunak Tory MP is understood to believe the moment for a potential change in leadership has passed – at least for now.
Putin’s military invasion of Ukraine has also given Starmer the chance to pitch Labour as unambiguously pro-NATO, putting the party side-by-side with the government, a significant departure from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which was critical of NATO.
The Labour leader on Thursday threatened to remove the whip from 11 MPs from the far left of the party, who signed a statement by the Stop The War campaign criticising NATO’s role in supporting Ukraine in the crisis. All 11 backed down.
A member of the shadow cabinet said the party’s response was further evidence of Labour’s clear break from the Corbyn years, and proof that the party could be “trusted” on national security and foreign policy.
“Keir’s strong support for the government’s approach to Russia and demands that they go further on sanctions have given strong signals to the public that we can be trusted again,” they told PoliticsHome.
The atmosphere has also shifted on the parliamentary estate this week, feeling more sombre and subdued than it did when people were excitedly speculating over who was about to topple Johnson.
One senior Tory MP told PoliticsHome that their children had asked if they were going to be safe after seeing clips of Russian bombs on the news.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said this week had been a rare example of MPs looking to opposing parties for expertise, such is the scale and the complexity of the challenge posed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“In times like this there are people on the other side whose views you seek,” Farron said, and emphasised the importance of “being humble and realising you don’t know everything”.
“There are wise heads on the other side, including a couple on the front bench,” he continued.
“I don’t agree with Ben Wallace on much, but he’s a very competent Secretary of State for Defence who is very on top of his brief”.
Conservative MPs Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood, who both have an army background, are consistently turned towards for their knowledge of geopolitics and the military.
Russia's attack on Ukraine, and its ripple of consequences, are expected to dominate the agenda for much of the foreseeable future. Westminster politics with all its squabbling, in-fighting and snowballing chaos, might just get put on hold.
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