Boris Johnson in Yorkshire, July 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons Boris Johnson in Yorkshire, July 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons

Lindsey German on the Tory crisis and the Ukrainian standoff   

It was said that when Tony Blair was facing a vote in parliament on Iraq, all government business stopped. Everything and everyone was turned to lobbying, bullying, threatening in endless meetings to ensure that he convinced his own MPs to vote for his illegal war. This is exactly what is going on with Boris Johnson’s government. Operations Save Big Dog and Red Meat are designed to convince enough of his MPs that he should not face the vote of confidence which should be the only outcome of partygate.

Johnson’s only interest now is saving his skin. His methods are as usual despicable: nothing short of open bribery in his ‘levelling up’ agenda; playing to the right-wing Tory gallery with scapegoating of refugees and abandoning any restrictions over Covid at a time when its spread in schools particularly is a matter of great concern. As Tory MPs agree that they must wait for Sue Gray’s report into the parties, that now looks like being even more neutered than was previously imagined.

For this Johnson has the Metropolitan Police to thank, and particularly its commissioner, Cressida Dick. For nearly two months now, the Met has said ‘nothing to see here’ and refused to investigate the (now 15 on record) parties in and around Downing Street. Suddenly at the end of last week that changed when Dick announced to the Greater London Assembly her force would be investigating after all. This was rapidly followed by saying that the Gray report could not refer publicly to many aspects of matters under investigation.

Let’s be clear about a few things here. The police investigation is into breach of lockdown rules and punishment for this will be penalty notices – fines. There is no issue of sub judice here and no one investigated is facing a jury trial – or indeed any trial. Dick was helped by the Tories last year when she was under attack and her tenure has been extended for two years by Priti Patel, her immediate boss. We should remember Dick’s record from being in command when Jean Charles de Menezes was shot by police in Stockwell tube in 2005, to presiding over the brutal attack on a women’s vigil protesting at the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer last year.

The Met helping Johnson out can only be seen as a cover up and symptomatic of corruption at the highest level which characterises his government. As parliament debates two vicious pieces of legislation attacking our civil liberties, we should never forget the way in which different arms of the state act to protect one another and to deny democratic accountability.

We should also not forget the Tory MPs desperately pleading on Johnson’s behalf. It is simply untrue to claim that he got it right on the big issues, when the UK has had the worst death rate of anywhere in Europe on Covid, or to claim that most people broke the rules (all the anecdotal and polling evidence shows otherwise), let alone to claim that he was ambushed by a cake. Whether all this is enough to save Johnson remains hugely unlikely.

Rishi Sunak is preparing a leadership contest and has forced Johnson to commit to the national insurance rise in April. Tom Tugendhat has also said he will stand. The sharks are circling.

There are also major political troubles for the government. Last week a minister resigned over the barely reported scandal of the fraud involved in business payments over Covid. An estimated £5 billion of loans have been shown to be fraudulent and will not be repaid, given to businesses some of whom did not exist when Covid began. The cost of living crisis is already upon us and millions of working people are fearful about what it means. Jack Monroe’s excellent exposé of how the poorest are much more impacted by inflation has forced the ONS to look again at its figures. But this crisis will go far beyond the poorest in its reach.  

And Covid is not over, despite the government’s reckless abandonment of plan B including mask-wearing and working from home. This allows business to force people to work in potentially dangerous conditions, just leaving everyone to fend for themselves, and putting much greater pressure on those who are vulnerable in any way. The NHS is under greater pressure than ever, with a major staffing crisis and services including ambulances falling far short of what any decent health service should provide. A recent study suggesting many with long Covid may have lung damage which is hard to detect is likely to presage much greater problems over this ahead.

As usual, Johnson’s response is to send in a gunboat. Sure enough, British warships are off to the Black Sea while Johnson talks up the threat of war in Ukraine and plans to send more British troops to Estonia. 

It still seems likely however that he won’t turn his unpopularity round – we will see by May with elections in all of London and Scotland, as well as partial ones elsewhere. At the same time, nature abhors a vacuum and that’s what it is getting from Labour and most of the trade unions. Protest against the government, industrial struggle and a wave of resistance to attacks in our living standards can finish Johnson off. And that moment can’t come too soon.  

Ukraine: war or rumours of war?

Liz Truss tells us there’s ‘nowhere to hide’ for Putin’s oligarchs. Maybe she should try looking in London’s Knightsbridge where many of those given preferential treatment under the government’s visa rules are spending their dirty money. Her stance is part of the government effort to talk up war in Ukraine, partly to detract from its own problems, but partly because it sees its role as a ‘global Britain’ centres on its military power and its desire to have a role as junior partner to US imperialism.

There is no justification for war in Ukraine. It will – as the US and UK governments have repeatedly told us in recent days – be a hideous and bitter conflict. But we should put this threatened war in context. It is turning into a major clash between US imperialism and its allies, embodied in the Nato alliance which is an aggressive and expansionist alliance, and Russian imperialism and its interests in trying to halt this expansion up to its borders and to maintain and extend its influence in eastern Europe.

It still seems unlikely to me that there is going to be a full-scale war or invasion – and this seems to be the view of among others the Ukrainian government. But the dangers remain. The US, UK and other powers are pouring weapons, troops and materiel into the region, and there are huge numbers of troops on the Russian borders – as we keep hearing from our media – but also on the Ukrainian border. Putin has succeeded in drawing attention to the Nato expansion question, and has also exposed divisions within the EU and western allies, with Germany and France much less keen on military intervention and much more stressing diplomacy. At the same time, the US has succeeded in sending more arms into eastern Europe and in strengthening Nato.

However it is clear that the conflict here was not what the US intended. They fear that its strategic orientation towards a new cold war with China is being deflected by it, as are other conflicts for example over Iran. The announcement by Nato’s general secretary Jens Stoltenberg that he was not sending troops to Ukraine shows some of the difficulties faced with a hot war there. Hence the greater talk about diplomacy and sanctions rather than directly intervening.

The talk from Truss and Johnson should be seen for the warmongering bluster that it is. Russian oligarchs’ money has bought them some privileged positions in Britain, including very close to the Tory party. The threat of sanctions on Russia may come to pass but denying them use of the Swift financial transaction system will have severe drawbacks in a number of countries where there is a lot of Russian money including Malta, Cyprus… and possibly Britain.

Whatever happens, this issue is not going away, and is part of the growing militarisation and threats of conflict to which our government is central.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.