DAN HODGES: How race to replace Boris Johnson was turned on its head

DAN HODGES: Liz Truss sidelined. Rishi Sunak’s economic plans in tatters. And the emergence of Ben Wallace as a Cabinet Action Man… How the race to replace Boris Johnson was turned on its head in just seven days

Ben Wallace had prepared. ‘He saw this crisis coming months ago,’ an ally of the Defence Secretary told me. ‘He knew what was going to happen.’

While the Government has faced mounting criticism over a failure to align its bold rhetoric with effective policy – from the targeting of oligarchs to the provision of safe routes for refugees – Wallace has emerged as the Cabinet’s Action Man.

Arms shipments of anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine began in January, with thousands of weapons sent.

British forces were dispatched to help train the Ukrainians in their use, training they have utilised to devastating effect against Putin’s armour.

And the difficult – and dangerous – flow of lethal munitions and other aid has been maintained, despite threats from the dictator he would interdict them.

‘Ben was already on first-name terms with defence ministers across Europe and across the Atlantic – it meant he was able to help mobilise support for Ukraine from the beginning,’ a Minister explains.

‘The fact he knows them all has made the negotiations faster and the discussions necessary between the Allied partners easier.’

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is just over a week old. In the space of seven days, British politics has been turned on its head. A few weeks ago Boris looked beaten. Partygate had brought him to the brink. But as the storm clouds of war gathered, then broke, he seems galvanised. Pictured: Mr Johnson leaves No10 with Ambassador of Ukraine to the UK Vadym Prystaiko

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is just over a week old. The full implications for European and global security are still impossible to calculate. But one thing is clear. In the space of seven days, British politics has been turned on its head.

Firstly, the balance of power at the top of Government has shifted dramatically. Within the unofficial ‘War Cabinet’ Boris has assembled to manage the crisis, Wallace has become the de facto Deputy Prime Minister. ‘The Army boys are in charge now,’ one Minister told me.

Not to everyone’s delight. It’s an open secret inside Government that tension is increasing between the Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

On Monday, Wallace moved to shut down Truss’s statement of support for British citizens travelling to Ukraine to fight – words that Russian officials had seized upon as justification for raising of the alert status of their nuclear forces.

Meanwhile, allies of Truss have pointed to what they say is increasingly bombastic rhetoric from the Defence Secretary, which they fear is making diplomacy harder. ‘That stuff about Putin going “full Tonto” was very off,’ I was told.

Firstly, the balance of power at the top of Government has shifted dramatically. Within the unofficial ‘War Cabinet’ Boris has assembled to manage the crisis, Wallace has become the de facto Deputy Prime Minister. ‘The Army boys are in charge now,’ one Minister told me

Not to everyone’s delight. It’s an open secret inside Government that tension is increasing between the Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (pictured together leaving Downing Street)

Meanwhile, Foreign Office sources say there is a growing sense of frustration that the Foreign Secretary is being sidelined as Boris exerts more direct control over co-ordinating diplomatic efforts.

‘Officials are worried the Prime Minister takes more advice from Lord Lebedev [Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian-British Evening Standard owner] over how best to tackle Putin than he’s currently taking from Liz,’ one said to me.

A No 10 insider confirmed: ‘Lebedev and Boris are close. They talk on WhatsApp a lot.’

But a senior Downing Street source responded: ‘As far as I’m aware, Boris and Lebedev haven’t spoken for several weeks. By contrast, he speaks to Liz several times a day.’

Another senior Minister who has had their world flipped upside down – again – is Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

On March 23 he’s due to present the OBR’s Spring Forecast, which is meant to outline the outlook for the economy and the public finances. But it’s already redundant.

‘This changes everything,’ one senior Tory backbencher told me. ‘Our entire defence posture and defence budget is going to have to be recast. Our Army is the smallest it’s been since 1800. Estonia is set to have a bigger strike air force than us. That’s not sustainable.’

‘Boris has his mojo back,’ an ally told me. ‘Even his harshest backbench critics have been admitting he’s got the tone absolutely right. He’s looked like a wartime Prime Minister. He’s been working hard behind the scenes with the other global leaders’

It’s unsustainable both militarily and politically. Labour, which is desperate to find a way of drawing a line under the Nato-bashing of the Corbyn years, is about to drive defence to the top of the political agenda.

‘The Government’s currently looking at additional cuts of 10,000 military personnel by 2025,’ a Shadow Minister explains, ‘and we’re going to fight it.

‘They’ve been arguing that we need more sophisticated weapons, but our case will be that what we need is the capability to put boots on the ground. The Russians are showing you can’t take and hold territory with robots and drones.’

Which leaves Sunak facing another fiscal nightmare.

Two years ago, Covid blew a hole in his grand economic strategy. Now Vladimir Putin has driven the 47th Guards Tank Division through its successor.

And the Chancellor knows that with the Treasury’s credit card maxed out, every penny spent shoring up Europe’s vulnerable eastern flank is a penny lost from levelling-up and tax cuts.

A number of MPs I spoke to last week think that Sunak’s position is no longer salvageable. ‘It’s over for him,’ one said. ‘He’s out of options. Covid and Putin have wrecked his budget. The cost of living crisis is about to hit. He’s done.’

Another senior Minister who has had their world flipped upside down – again – is Chancellor Rishi Sunak. On March 23 he’s due to present the OBR’s Spring Forecast, which is meant to outline the outlook for the economy and the public finances. But it’s already redundant

But the impact on British politics of Putin’s barbarism goes much wider. Tory MPs are already demanding the axeing of the Government’s cherished commitment to Net Zero as a way of breaking our dependency on Russian gas and oil.

‘It’s very difficult to see how Net Zero can survive contact with where we now are,’ one senior Tory told me. ‘We’ve got to start to develop our own gas supplies like it was a national war effort.’

Others point to the Prime Minister’s ambition to lead a post-Brexit pivot away from Europe, and to begin to construct a new global alliance centred around Asia and Africa.

‘This great shift to the Pacific is dead,’ one grandee declared. ‘You can’t focus your attention 6,000 miles away when there are huge strategic issues confronting you 22 miles across the Channel. What’s Boris going to do – leave it to Macron to deal with Putin?’

Probably not. Not least because despite the enormity of the crisis, the Prime Minister appears to be up for his confrontation with the Kremlin.

A few weeks ago Boris looked beaten. Partygate had brought him to the brink. But as the storm clouds of war gathered, then broke, he seems galvanised.

‘Boris has his mojo back,’ an ally told me. ‘Even his harshest backbench critics have been admitting he’s got the tone absolutely right. He’s looked like a wartime Prime Minister. He’s been working hard behind the scenes with the other global leaders.

‘And he’s reminded people that despite all the knocks, he’s good in a crisis. He makes the right calls. And there haven’t been many politicians who have had to face as many major crises as he has.’

Not all his opponents are inclined to be so magnanimous. ‘We can’t move while there’s a war raging,’ one told me, ‘but we’re not going away. We were within two names of getting the 54 letters when Christian Wakeford defected. And if the Met delivers a fine, then he’s still going to face a challenge.’

The challenges the Prime Minister faces are indeed formidable, as his friends concede.

‘The key for Boris now is to learn the lessons,’ a senior lieutenant explained. ‘He can’t take his eye off the ball again. And that’s not going to be easy. Yes, people expect him to stay focused on Ukraine. But there are other things they expect him to stay focused on as well. Levelling-up. Cost of living. He mustn’t slacken off.’

This potential loss of focus is what troubles a number of his MPs. While most admit that Boris is having a good war, they wonder if he has the necessary discipline to navigate his way through a prolonged crisis.

And they are nervous they are again seeing a disconnect between the pledges he makes at the Despatch Box and what his Ministers actually deliver.

But they also acknowledge Putin’s crazed aggression has changed everything. ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux,’ Tony Blair said in the aftermath of 9/11. So it is again.

This morning a new Prime Minister and a new Government are trying to guide their country through a dangerous new world.

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