Show caption ‘It’s not for me to comment on individual cases,’ said the Suspect. Er… hello? Why the hell not? Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AP The politics sketch The new statesmanlike Boris quickly gives way to the old self-centred one at PMQs John Crace The Suspect dodged difficult questions about oligarchs then lost his temper. Not all Russian money was dirty money, he shouted @JohnJCrace Wed 2 Mar 2022 19.37 GMT Share on Facebook
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The prime minister’s parliamentary private secretaries were all decked out in blue and yellow. As were Theresa May and several SNP MPs. They could all have come straight from a Ryanair convention. Elsewhere in the chamber, MPs settled for rather more sober blue and yellow ribbons. But the sentiment was exactly the same.
This was a House of Commons united in its support for Ukraine. When the Speaker announced that the Ukrainian ambassador, Vadym Prystaiko, was in the gallery, the house rose as one to give him a prolonged and heartfelt standing ovation. It was as moving as it was unprecedented. Though NHS workers might point out that clapping sometimes comes cheap from politicians.
Over the last week or so, Boris Johnson has given tough speeches and gone on trips to the European mainland to express solidarity. All of which has played well with a home audience. The Russian invasion has not been a conflict on which it has been difficult to pick sides. Better still, all of his domestic problems seem to have melted away. For the time being at least. While people are dying in a cruel war, it seems almost too trivial to mention that the prime minister couldn’t be bothered to follow his own Covid rules.
But at prime minister’s questions the mask began to crack. The Suspect was no longer being asked to just Talk the Talk. He was also being asked to Walk the Walk. And he just couldn’t do it. This isn’t a leader likely to follow the Taiwan president’s example of giving one month of his salary to Ukrainian humanitarian causes. Well, not unless he could get Lord Brownlow to cough up again on his behalf. Dear, dear David. One more time, old chap.
Back came the bluster and the shiftiness. The tugging on his Toddlers ’R Us haircut. The childish outbursts of narcissistic rage that he can’t control when challenged. Anything that is not on his terms cannot be tolerated. Come the end of PMQs the new, not entirely convincing, statesmanlike Boris was beginning to look very much like the old, self-centred Boris.
Keir Starmer began by reiterating that Labour was united with the government against Russian aggression. Just so there was no room for confusion. He didn’t want Johnson to get the wrong end of the stick. What he really wanted to know was why the UK was lagging so far behind the US and the EU in imposing sanctions on Russian oligarchs. How about Roman Abramovich? He was on a Home Office list as a person of interest and is now in the process of trying to sell Chelsea. Why not go after him before he took the money and ran?
“It’s not for me to comment on individual cases,” said the Suspect. Er … hello? Why the hell not? Surely it’s precisely what a prime minister is there for, to talk truth to money. If he can’t then who can? There again, Johnson is on record that he finds it “inexplicable” that oligarchs aren’t doing more – anything – to condemn the war. The rest of us merely find their silence to be entirely on brand.
The Labour leader moved on. What about the two Westminster flats of Igor Shuvalov, Vladimir Putin’s former deputy prime minister? We had only got to find out he owned the property through a poisoned Russian dissident. Which brought him on to his next question. Why was the government kicking its heels over the economic crimes bill? It seemed to be going out of its way to make it easier for dirty money to be taken out of the country by giving every kleptocrat an 18-month head start.
Johnson had no answer other than to talk about cutting off the Swift payments system and banning Aeroflot. Which was beside the point as no one had any problem with him having done that. “We’re leading Europe,” he mumbled. Except we’re not. At a time when we’re looking for heroes – and who better fits the bill than Volodymyr Zelenskiy? – the UK government looks as if it is running scared.
If the Suspect wanted to prove many people’s suspicions that the Tory party is in hock to Russian money, he couldn’t have made a better job of it. At the very least he made it look as if he wasn’t that bothered about London’s status as the world’s laundromat. Or about the extent of Russian influence in British politics.
This was a point Labour’s Bill Esterson made when he invited Johnson to donate the £2m the Tories had received from Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Russia’s former deputy minister of finance, to the Ukrainian war effort. Just to clear the air and to show that the Conservatives had nothing to hide. Now Boris lost his temper. Not all Russian money was dirty money, he shouted. Quite right. Though maybe Chernukhin’s links to the Russian state might have raised some eyebrows. Then, maybe the Suspect believes that every oligarch made their money through hard work or playing the lottery.
With all Tories, apart from Bob Seely, steering clear of difficult questions about oligarchs and sanctions, the session drifted to a close with John Penrose wondering what had happened to Brexit. Remember that? Johnson waved his arms and said we’d be seeing some benefits just as soon as Jacob Rees-Mogg got round to identifying any. Just don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, in the gallery, Prystaiko was anxiously checking his phone. Watching British politicians trade words had a limited appeal when his countrymen were fighting for Ukraine street by street.
• An evening with Marina Hyde and John Crace
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