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Party? What party? Johnson seeks political makeover but is change just skin-deep?

The war in Ukraine has pushed #Partygate off the front pages but Boris Johnson’s attempts to reinvent himself as a trustworthy statesman are still overshadowed by past misdemeanours, with the police yet to report on whether he broke lockdown rules

Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

Fashion is fickle and paper hats, tinsel garlands and wine-filled suitcases are just so last season, darling. Or at least that is what Boris Johnson might like us to believe as he goes for the ultimate political makeover: from sybarite to statesman. 

Gone are the pictures of the prime minister lounging on his terrace, cheese and wine within reach, or with tinsel-draped colleagues in his office. Instead, we are treated to images of a less-dishevelled-than-usual Johnson greeting British soldiers or flitting around Europe, seeking to rally the diplomatic troops.

In a video posted on Twitter on Sunday, Johnson speaks gravely over a soundtrack of rousing music and images of him slow-mo striding with world leaders. “Putin must fail,” he intones. “Vladimir Putin has made a huge miscalculation. He’s underestimated the willingness and strength of the Ukrainians to resist, he’s underestimated President Zelensky of Ukraine, and he’s also underestimated Western resolve and Western unity and we stand together to ensure Putin must fail.”

It must make a welcome change from having to dodge sordid questions about parties, and wine, and music, and broken swings and all the things that have made British politics seem like an over-the-top episode of a particularly sudsy soap opera over the past few months.

But as Johnson seeks to reposition himself and his government at the heart of international efforts to help Ukraine, he might find that not everyone is buying his new look. Not least because it seems that underneath the mask of sober diplomacy, there still beats the same opportunistic heart with its penchant for tall tales and bombastic bluster. 

Behind the oft-repeated claim that Britain is leading efforts to sanction Russian oligarchs and bolster humanitarian efforts are some uncomfortable truths: the UK has only granted a handful of visas to fleeing Ukrainians so far while even Tory ministers have criticised the sanctions, with many observers saying they do not go far enough or fast enough, meaning those targeted may have time to sell up and move their money elsewhere. 

And that nagging question of whether one can trust this prime minister just won’t go away. The Sunday Times reported this weekend, that the UK’s security services withdrew an assessment that giving Russian-born businessman Evgeny Lebedev a peerage posed a security risk after Johnson intervened. 

Lebedev, who is the son of a billionaire Russian banker and former KGB officer, owns the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers and was granted the peerage in July 2020.

The Sunday Times said that the commission that vets such appointments advised Johnson against granting Lebedev a seat in the House of Lords because of security concerns. Johnson allegedly said the advice was “anti-Russianism”.

Lord Lebedev, who holds both British and Russian citizenship, and Johnson have said the Times’ allegations are incorrect while Labour leader Keir Starmer has called for a senior parliamentary committee to investigate the claims. There must be a joke somewhere about how many investigations does it take to unscrew a failing prime minister. 

And although Starmer has stopped calling for Johnson’s resignation, for now, that doesn’t mean the fundamental issues raised by #Partygate have gone away. 

“I do think there’s a basic question of trust,” Starmer said at the weekend. “Of course, he is still being investigated by the Metropolitan Police,” he said, adding, however, that he would demonstrate unity at this time of crisis despite his “frustrations” with the prime minister. 

It is not yet clear when we might get the results of the police inquiry, or when and if we will see the full Sue Gray report. News reports at the weekend said the police were still sending out questionnaires to those who allegedly attended the Downing Street parties and had not yet issued any fines.

This hiatus does seem to be benefitting Johnson – at least for now. The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuennsberg wrote this weekend that most Tories think now is not the time for a conversation about changing the leader. And she quoted one minister as saying that anyone talking about this would be “off their rocker”.

But the stay-of-execution does not constitute an exoneration and Johnson cannot afford to slip up again. The May 5 local elections are still an important milestone for him, observers say, and then there is the cost-of-living crisis to manage as well and that is only going to get worse.

As he works his new look as international stateman, Johnson is meeting world leaders this week to “mobilise the global outcry at the atrocities of Russian aggression into practical and sustained support for Ukraine” while the UK is also allocating an additional $100m directly to the Ukrainian government budget to mitigate financial pressures created by the invasion. 

It is clear Johnson does want to help Ukraine and he likes to stress his close, regular contact with the increasingly exhausted-looking Zelensky. But it can be a problematic proximity because Zelensky’s bravery and commitment to his people does shine rather an uncomfortable light on a man who has shown little evidence of such self-sacrifice throughout his political career, even if he is now trying to rise to a ghastly occasion.

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