Everywhere you looked in the House of Commons, there was blue and yellow: scarves, ties, ribbons and tops in combinations that left the vague impression that we were at an impeccably tailored football match, or about to board a flight with Air Ukraine.
MPs first cheered and then began to applaud
Waiting to take his seat in the cockpit, Boris Johnson leaned on the back of the Speaker’s chair. His hair was freshly cut, very freshly to judge from the way a couple of aides were brushing at his shoulders. He often bounces at this point, geeing himself up for a punchy performance, but this time his feet were firmly on the ground. Perhaps he was tired. Perhaps he was toning himself down. Dignified solidarity is the current order of the day.
Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, nonetheless felt obliged to remind MPs to behave themselves, a warning that usually gets as much attention as a safety briefing on a commuter flight. Having reminded them that their closest exit might be behind them, Hoyle went on. “I want to welcome to our gallery the Ukrainian ambassador.”
We looked about us. A few seats along from me, a small grey-haired man stood up. MPs first cheered and then began to applaud. Daniel Kawczynski, a gigantic Polish-born Tory, rose to his feet and the chamber, extraordinarily, followed his lead, still applauding. The ambassador gave a little bow. They carried on. It lasted 40 seconds by the clock, but I could have sworn it went on for as long as the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca. Johnson giving big, slow, posh man claps, Chris Heaton-Harris, the chief whip, offering tiny polite applause, all of them gazing up at the representative of a besieged and suffering nation. You might scoff at it as an empty gesture, but that was not how it felt in the room.
When they finally resumed, the prime minister gave a slightly more solid offer, promising to match every pound donated to help refugees from the war. The Russian president has, in Johnson’s statements, lost his first name and any title. He is now simply “Putin”, a two-syllable surname that needs no other explanation, which puts him in some unpleasant company.
Who knew there were so many bad Russians to punish?
The war is supposed to make these sessions tricky for Keir Starmer, who supports the government’s broad approach and doesn’t wish to expose political splits at a time of national crisis. But he has found an effective “critical supporter” approach, urging Johnson to go further and faster. Why, he asked, as people seem to ask the prime minister every day, were there still no sanctions on Roman Abramovich? Johnson replied that he couldn’t comment on an individual case – a rule that ministers often seem to apply at their own convenience – but that the “vice is tightening on the Putin regime”.
OK, replied Starmer. What about Putin’s former deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, who owns two flats five minutes walk from parliament? He was sanctioned by the European Union, but not the UK. Why not? Johnson didn’t have an answer.
On Starmer went. Why would the Economic Crime Bill, rushed forward under Labour pressure, not take effect for 18 months? “Let us look at the impact of what the UK is doing,” the prime minister pleaded. “The whole House should be proud of what we have done.”
Behind him his new parliamentary aide, Joy Morrissey, was nodding her head furiously and looking around to her colleagues for support, like a nodding dog toy in the back of a car going over speed bumps. But few joined her. Many may have wondered if the Labour leader had a point.
Starmer carried out a neat piece of rhetorical judo. “I have acknowledged it and I do again,” he said. “What I am offering is support to speed this up on Monday.” How could Johnson object to support? He couldn’t. “If we can work together to make sure that we strengthen and accelerate the package, all the better,” he replied. Starmer promised to bring forward amendments.
Meanwhile other Labour MPs continued to offer names for the sanctions list. Chris Bryant asked about Russia’s defence minister, at which Johnson rolled his eyes wearily. Who knew there were so many bad Russians to punish? The prime minister is learning, perhaps for the first time in his life, that the trouble with turning up for work is that people just expect you to do it again the next day.
Bill Esterson asked about Lubov Chernukhin, who he said has given £2 million to the Conservative Party. That provoked some outrage from the Tories, and genuine anger from the prime minister. “It is absolutely vital,” he told Esterson, “that we demonstrate that this is not about the Russian people; this is about the Putin regime.” Donors have feelings, too.
Towards the end, the Conservative MP, Alec Shelbrooke, asked why nothing was being done to stop the long convoy of tanks and artillery that has been seen grinding its way into Ukraine. Johnson was sympathetic. “Many people looking at it will wonder why it is impossible to interrupt the progress of those tanks with airstrikes from a drone, for instance, which we know that the Ukrainians have,” he said. “It turns out that, unfortunately, it is not as easy as people might think.”
In other circumstances, it would be a hilarious delight to see Boris Jonson, of all people, forced to explain that complex problems don’t have simple solutions. Instead, we could only agree with him when he called it a “tragic reality”.
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