Claims that Boris Johnson missed a conference of Northern MPs for a trip to Ukraine over fears of a bad reception after partygate have been dismissed as “conspiracy b******s”.
The prime minister unexpectedly pulled out of a conference of northern Conservatives in Doncaster on Friday, just days before a crucial by-election in Wakefield that the Conservatives are widely expected to lose.
Sky News’ deputy political editor Sam Coates said organisers of the inaugural Northern Research Group (NRG) conference were “mystified” at the no-show, but had been told there was a “good reason” and that it was of “sufficient significance”.
However, it did not stop speculation that Mr Johnson may have cancelled in order to miss a rough ride following the partygate scandal and a major revolt by his own MPs.
Mr Johnson’s allies dismissed the claims, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace describing them as “conspiracy b******s”.
He said there was “a lot of rubbish being spouted” – adding such visits had to be organised in “total secrecy” and it was important for Mr Johnson to show support for an ally at war.
“Helping Ukraine win and trying to help at home are linked. Part of the inflation we see comes from gas and food prices which are partly driven upwards because of this conflict,” he tweeted.
“Amazing how an important trip can generate so much conspiracy b******s.”
Sky News understands that one Conservative MP at the conference was furious the prime minister did not turn up to the event, adding they were told that Mr Johnson “was on the train to Doncaster” on Friday morning.
“This is the first test of outreach to his colleagues and he’s failed it,” the MP said.
Jake Berry, leader of the NRG, said people were “disappointed” by Mr Johnson’s no-show.
He said the summit underlined the importance of giving the region greater control so it was not just reliant on politicians in Whitehall.
He said that unless people in the North were able to see the benefits of levelling up, the Conservatives would struggle at the next general election.
‘I wouldn’t run away…’
“The prime minister’s movement is a matter for Downing Street,” Mr Berry told Channel 4 News.
“Clearly, people were disappointed. We had 30-plus colleagues here and 400 members.
“What we have set out here today is hugely positive ideas from the North, for the North which are designed to appeal to those voters in Wakefield and across the North of England.
“It is about fuelling that debate about how here in the North of England we can take back control of our destiny, not be reliant on a prime minister in Whitehall or Kyiv or wherever he may be at an individual moment to change our lives.
“Whoever the prime minister is, whatever is in the Conservative Party manifesto, unless people feel good about what Conservatives are achieving in the North, it is going to be a very difficult election. I wouldn’t run away from that.”
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership who was also at the NRG event, said Mr Johnson’s decision not to attend was a “missed opportunity”.
‘Be brave, like Boris’
Downing Street said Mr Johnson met President Zelenskyy in Kyiv to discuss Ukraine’s fight against Russia and to offer a major training programme for Ukrainian forces “to help sustain their heroic defence”.
The government said the programme, spearheaded by the UK, has the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days and will assist both new and existing Ukrainian soldiers.
The initiative will train and drill Ukraine’s armed forces using battle-proven British Army expertise, allowing them to accelerate their deployment, rebuild their forces and scale up their resistance as they continue to defend their nation’s sovereignty against Russian invaders, Downing Street added.
Mr Johnson became the first leader of a G7 country to travel to Kyiv when he went for the first time in April.
The Ukrainian defence ministry said at the time: “We welcome Boris Johnson to Kyiv… Be brave, like Boris. Be brave, like Ukraine.”