For someone so usually garrulous, Boris Johnson has been remarkably tight-lipped this week about the one subject everyone else has been talking about: “Partygate.”
On Tuesday, he didn’t even mention to his Cabinet that he’d been tipped off by the Met Police that it was ordering an investigation into alleged Covid rule-breaking.
That same day, he appeared in Parliament and devoted precisely 118 words to the subject, mainly to say that he actually welcomed the development because it would help “draw a line” under the whole affair.
On Wednesday, he battled through Prime Minister’s Questions sounding like a suspect in TV’s Line of Duty drama who simply repeats the words “no comment” on a loop.
But what Johnson did very much want to talk about this week was Ukraine. Having held a conference call with US President Joe Biden, Nato’s Secretary-General and EU leaders, the huge build-up of Russian troops on the country’s borders was the lead topic on which the Prime Minister briefed the Cabinet.
The contrast between Johnson’s little local difficulty over his personal conduct and the bigger geopolitical issues at stake could not have been more incongruous.
While his official spokesman was trying to describe a No 10 birthday cake celebration as lawful because it was “on the edges of a work meeting”, Russian President Vladimir Putin was on the edges of Europe on the brink of a war.
In his Commons statement, Johnson stepped up the sabre-rattling as he set out that both economic sanctions and military force were being readied. “If Russia pursues this path many Russian mothers’ sons will not be coming home,” he said darkly.
Indeed for loyal Tory MPs, the crisis in Ukraine was cited as a major reason not to unseat their leader. Stuart Anderson said that colleagues calling for Johnson’s resignation were only “strengthening Putin’s hand”.
Backbencher James Gray even had a stab at combining the Moscow threat with the threat of defections of Tory MPs to Labour. “What do Christian Wakeford and Vladimir Putin have in common?” he asked. “They may both be the very saviour which Boris Johnson needs.”
Older hands also pointed out to any wavering colleague from the 2019 intake that Margaret Thatcher was all but written off and still managed to bounce back after the Falkland Islands victory.
To cap it off, some of his most loyal supporters have even suggested that if the Ukraine crisis really does come to a head, and more British troops are sent to defend Nato allies bordering Russia, Johnson could have his own “Falklands moment”.
One can see why some are tempted by the comparison. At the end of 1981, polls showed that Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister in modern history and her critics in her party were circling. After her military triumph, the polls flipped and she went on to win not one but two more general elections.
However, there are many more reasons why history won’t repeat itself. First, any military intervention in Eastern Europe won’t be as simple – or solely British – as it was in the South Atlantic. Putin’s Red Army is hardly the rag-bag force that the Argentine junta deployed 40 years ago.
Second, those who want to replace Johnson – whether that’s Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak or even Sir Keir Starmer – are as determined as he is (if not more in Truss’s case) in wanting to deter Russian aggression. Replacing him wouldn’t mean much, if any, change in policy on Putin.
Most obviously of all, the idea that the country couldn’t possibly afford to change Prime Minister in a time of looming international conflict is somewhat undermined by the replacement in 1940 of Neville Chamberlain with Johnson’s own hero, Winston Churchill.
More recently, the Tories smoothly replaced Baroness Thatcher with Sir John Major in the middle of the first Gulf War, with no impact on the outcome.
There is another comparison to the Falklands which is also not exactly flattering for Johnson: now, as then, the UK can be accused of taking its eye off the ball in the run-up to the crisis.
While Joe Biden and other European leaders have made a series of interventions, the Prime Minister looked like a bit-player in the flurry of diplomatic efforts to avoid war. As high level meetings took place, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss were both in Australia.
As former national security adviser Peter Ricketts put it: “It’s been striking that in this week of acute tension in Europe, the Prime Minister seems to have been absent from top-level Ukraine diplomacy, and the Foreign Secretary has managed to be in the wrong hemisphere.”
Perhaps stung by such claims, the Foreign Office last weekend declassified intelligence suggesting Putin wanted to stage a coup in Ukraine and install a puppet government.
One briefing line from No 10 was that Johnson “has pushed for a gear change on the Ukraine situation”, which itself sparked speculation he really was reaching for something to distract from Partygate.
The threat posed by Russia is real, rather than imagined. The British Army leads the Nato battlegroup in Estonia and more forces could be deployed if needed.
The warnings by GCHQ to British firms to step up cybersecurity in the face of possible attacks from Moscow were proof that the battle lines are online as well as on the ground.
But as Johnson implies that Russia risks another Afghanistan in Ukraine, some in military and foreign affairs circles remember his own less than stellar record as Foreign Secretary.
Few forget that the only visit Johnson made to Afghanistan came when he flew there on a lightning visit on the same day that the Commons held a vote to approve a third runway at Heathrow – a trip that cost the taxpayer £20,000.
Similarly, although he made trips to Ukraine, he arrived later than other foreign ministers. And despite making jokes about eating “Chicken Kiev – very interesting indeed it was”, many in Kiev contrasted their own desire to join the European Union with his role as progenitor of Brexit.
In 2016, Johnson sparked anger in Ukraine when he effectively accused the EU of fuelling its internal strife. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt accused him of being “an apologist for Putin”. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski asked him to pick a side: “Boris, old boy, it’s time to make a decision, are you with the EU, President Obama or President Putin?”
Any attempt to project himself as commander-in-chief may also come unstuck given his broken promise on cuts to the British armed forces. At the 2019 Tory manifesto launch, he declared: “We will not be cutting our Armed Forces in any form”. Last year, the Government confirmed it was cutting the Army from 76,500 trained personnel to 72,500 by 2025.
The wider worry for the Prime Minister is that even if he gets through the current political skirmishes, he’ll be too damaged to fight the next election.
Although he may surprise many and survive the battle of Partygate and a vote of no confidence, he may have already lost the wider war of public opinion.
Veteran backbencher Sir Edward Leigh, who urged his colleagues to get a “sense of proportion” of the respective importance of Putin vs parties, told me on BBC Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster this week that he and others will have to take a “mature judgement” over time on whether to keep Johnson in post.
“The Conservative Party is quite ruthless and wants to win the next general election. And if in 18 months’ time we are still 10 points behind Labour and there is a minus 31 confidence in Boris, then we will have to think again,” he said.
Sir Edward was actually trying to be helpful. But whatever Putin may do in coming weeks, with friends like those, Johnson hardly needs enemies.