Five things we learnt from Johnson’s evidence to MPs

31 March 2022

3:44 AM

31 March 2022

3:44 AM

Boris Johnson rocked up at the Liaison Committee today, fresh from last night’s bonding dinner with 250 Tory MPs. And the Prime Minister displayed no trace of a hangover as he produced a competent performance during his largely uneventful ninety-minute grilling. Select committee chairs are generally a fairly hostile bunch: because they’re elected by the whole House, Tory critics of the PM tend to be more successful than his defenders. Today’s session was a much more muted affair than last year’s outing, with Johnson’s interrogators mainly choosing to focus on Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis. Even so, some news lines did emerge from Boris Johnson’s appearance.

1) His possible partygate defence

Pete Wishart, an arch critic of the PM, was first up at Liaison Committee. Unsurprisingly the SNP man opted to lead on partygate, asking Johnson whether he was one of the 20 people in No. 10 who has received a fixed-penalty notice from the Metropolitan police. Johnson replied that ‘I’m sure you would know if I were’. He added that he would refuse to give ‘a running commentary on an investigation which is under way’ – the same line that ministers have been deploying on the morning media rounds. The PM also hinted at his likely defence to accusations that he misled the Commons. He said ‘I think it’s very important you should be clear with the Commons. I’ve tried to be as clear as I can about my understanding of events’ – suggesting that he did not deliberately mislead MPs.

2) On-shore wind plans possibly shelved

Asked about rising energy costs, Johnson told MPs that ‘Offshore wind – I stress offshore wind – has massive potential.’ It suggests that the government will not be going ahead with Kwasi Kwarteng’s scheme to relax planning laws to increase onshore wind production by building new turbines, amid reports of Cabinet rift. Johnson also asked why the UK is not doing more on nuclear energy, asking the committee ‘Why have the French got 56 reactors and we’ve barely got six?’ He suggested that small nuclear reactors could be producing power for UK by end of decade.

3) Aid to Ukraine will be stepped up

Much of the questioning focused on Ukraine, with Tom Tugendhat asking if Johnson agrees with President Biden’s comments that Putin must go. Understandably, the Prime Minister chose to duck that one, saying he understands why Biden said that but that getting rid of Putin is not the UK’s objective. He also said that the UK is looking at ‘going up a gear’ by providing more military support to Ukraine including armoured vehicles. In a typically Johnsonian phrase, he said that Britain will offer Ukraine protection ‘based on the idea of deterrence by denial, so that Ukraine is so fortified, so protected with weaponry, the quills of the porcupine have become so stiffened so that it is indigestible to Putin.’ He added that sanctions must be increased until every ‘single one of Russia’s troops’ have left Ukraine.

4) News publications must have a UK address

Under questioning about the Online Safety Bill, Johnson revealed that there will be new restrictions on foreign news outlets in the UK. Earlier this month Ofcom revoked the licence of Russian state-funded news sites Sputnik and Russia Today, amid fears about their editorial content. There is however nothing to stop these organisations from simply relaunching under a new name and licence. The government intends to stop this happening by introducing new rules that would require media outlets to have a UK address. He said: ‘We need to make sure anyone publishing online in a systematic way, should be classified as a news publisher and it should be subject to the controls of the bill.’ Bad luck for overseas news sites like the Ireland-based Guido Fawkes.

5) Levelling up could target child poverty

Catherine McKinnell, chair of the Petitions Committee, chose to lead on child poverty. She said that that figures Johnson quoted at today’s PMQs session on the subject were outdated and it is in fact set to rise under this government. Asked simply, ‘Can you level up the country without reducing the number of children living in poverty?’ Johnson replied ‘No’. This metric is not part of current government levelling up targets: if Johnson’s word is taken at face value, it suggests it could be included in future assessments.

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