Britain's Boris Johnson defiant on eve of G7 summit despite domestic turmoil

UK prime minister says he will not undergo 'psychological change' to appease party critics and electorate as he gears up to tell fellow global leaders to be steadfast in their support of Ukraine

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says British voters are tired of hearing about what he is "alleged to have done wrong". Getty
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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted he will not undergo a "psychological transformation" as pressure piles on his leadership after the Tories' double by-election defeat.

However, the under-fire leader will seek to block out the ominous sounds of domestic discontent and sharpening backbench knives when he flies in from a Commonwealth meeting in Rwanda for the first day of the G7 summit in Germany on Sunday.

Leaders of the seven largest "advanced" economies are convening to discuss their response to the crisis in Ukraine and other pressing world issues.

Mr Johnson isn't completely impervious to the farrago surrounding his leadership, and told the BBC in an interview on Saturday that he "humbly and sincerely" accepts any criticism he receives in his job.

Yet this mea culpa had a caveat as he argued every government gets "buffeted" by bad by-election results midterm.

He claimed British voters are tired of hearing about what he is "alleged to have done wrong", and called instead for a focus on "what we're doing for them".

His comments come after the loss of two crunch by-elections in Yorkshire and Devon, and Oliver Dowden's sudden resignation as Conservative Party chairman.

Mr Johnson said his role is to look at exactly what happened and "think which criticisms really matter".

When it was put to him that Mr Dowden had given a warning, as he resigned, that business could not continue as usual, Mr Johnson said: "If you're saying you want me to undergo some sort of psychological transformation, I think that our listeners would know that is not going to happen.

"What you can do, and what the government should do, and what I want to do, is to get on with changing and reforming and improving our systems and our economy."

Despite some early speculation after the by-election results, Mr Dowden was the sole Cabinet minister to tender his resignation.

That has not stopped Tory rebels reportedly using the by-election defeats as the springboard for the latest attempted putsch against the prime minister, with The Times newspaper suggesting opponents of Mr Johnson are planning a takeover of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers in a bid to change the rules to allow another confidence vote on his leadership.

 

Mr Johnson said the only argument of "substance" for a change of direction he has heard from his critics is for the UK to return to the EU single market.

"I would say to them, you know, with great respect — and I love all these people — but don't forget that the only actual argument that I've heard some of my critics make of substance about the change of direction they'd like to see is for us to go back into the EU single market," he said.

"That's literally the only manifesto point that I've seen."

Mr Johnson suggested he would stand down as prime minister if he was asked to "abandon the Ukrainian cause". But he later denied saying this was the only principle that would trigger his resignation.

"I didn't say that — you asked me for an example of a matter of principle, I came up with one," he said.

The departure of Mr Dowden may also prompt a reshuffle in the prime minister's top team, with reports that Priti Patel could be asked to leave her Home Secretary role to become party chairwoman.

UK seeks Ukraine commitment from G7

Mr Johnson is undoubtedly more comfortable on the international stage at present, and his trip to Germany from Sunday and the Nato meeting in Madrid from Tuesday will keep him out of the country at a time of friction. But he will hope playing global statesman, focusing on the biggest war in Europe since the defeat of the Nazis, will persuade doubters that it is not the time to consider a change in leadership.

At the G7 summit he will promise further financial support for Ukraine in the form of £429 million ($526 million) in guarantees for World Bank lending and urge allies to commit to supporting Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the war against Russia drags on.

Before the G7 summit at the luxury spa retreat Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps, Mr Johnson said: "Future generations will be awed and inspired by the truly heroic Ukrainian resistance in the face of Mr Putin's barbarism."

"Ukraine can win and it will win. But they need our backing to do so. Now is not the time to give up on Ukraine.

"The UK will continue to back Ukraine every step of the way, because we know that their security is our security, and their freedom is our freedom."

The prime minister is wary that support for Ukraine among European allies may be wavering as the conflict drags on, meaning Mr Zelenskyy could be pressured into accepting peace terms that cede large tracts of territory to President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

He would not single out individual nations but said there was a "general sentiment" among some of his fellow leaders.

"If Mr Putin gets away with aggression in Ukraine, if he gets away with the naked conquest of other people's territory, then the read across for every single country here is absolutely dramatic," Mr Johnson warned.

Mr Zelenskyy is expected to address the G7 countries — the UK, US, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy — remotely on Sunday.

The Ukrainian government fears it could run out of funding by the autumn unless it is given urgent financial help and Mr Johnson will lobby counterparts to do more, following the example set by the UK.

The loan guarantees provided by the UK will take economic and humanitarian support offered by the government to £1.5 billion and are expected to cover costs such as public sector wages, and the running of schools and hospitals.

The G7 leaders will meet at Germany's Schloss Elmau castle to discuss issues affecting the world. Reuters

The prime minister's Downing Street office said the UK would support Ukraine's goals of ending the war with a deal under which Russia's troops pull out of any territory occupied since the invasion in February.

The prime minister's official spokesman said the two summits "will be the most crucial gathering of world leaders since Putin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine".

"The West has come together in recent months to provide the military, financial and political support to Ukraine," he said.

"But as it becomes clear this war will not be won overnight by Mr Putin, as he had hoped, but ultimately by Ukraine thanks to their long and continuing resolve — our support needs to enter a new phase."

The prime minister will urge western allies to increase sanctions against Mr Putin "and his cronies, ensuring they feel the cost of their barbarism", the spokesman said.

Mr Johnson's aims also include finding ways to allow Ukrainian grain exports to resume, to alleviate global food shortages, although he said there is little hope of sending the Royal Navy to rescue grain from the Russian president's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports as he set sights on talks with Turkey to prevent famine being a consequence of the invasion.

UK cost of living crisis escalates

His willingness to lavish the public purse on Ukraine will raise eyebrows among many UK voters, currently struggling with a debilitating cost of living crisis.

The Conservatives are facing accusations of not doing enough to help mitigate rising energy costs while also being embroiled in a fearsome dispute with Britain's rail workers, who are demanding a pay rise in line with inflation.

Asked why he had not yet cut VAT on energy bills, Mr Johnson said: "I don't rule out that we will do it."

He said the government had "already cut fuel duty by record amounts", but acknowledged this would be "swallowed up" and said more may be needed.

Pressed on whether the tax will be slashed further he said officials wanted to make sure those cuts are properly passed on to the consumer.

"I'm very happy to have an argument about tax and I'm saying some of the things that we're already doing," Mr Johnson said.

"But when it comes to energy, and the cost of people's energy bills, tax is not enough.

"You've got to look at the way the whole thing works."

One of the problems is that people are being charged for electricity on the basis of the top marginal gas price, the prime minister said.

"We need to get rid of that system," he said.

"We need to reform our energy markets, as they have done in other European countries.

"So that is one of the ways by reforming the market, by changing the way things work, that you can get prices down, you can bear down on costs for people."

Many national grids across Europe have been restored to public ownership and have coped far better with the energy crisis than the UK. Yet it is unlikely the constitutionally pro-market Tory party would consider such a move — and Mr Johnson was more likely alluding to the opening up of the national grid to private companies, as called for by Octopus Energy chief Greg Jackson at London Tech Week earlier this month.

Updated: June 27, 2022, 11:19 AM
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