A Tory MP has defended Boris Johnson from accusations he traveled to Ukraine to avoid his own MPs, saying he is “not the living embodiment of chicken Kyiv”.
Johnson raised eyebrows on Friday after swapping a key conference in Yorkshire for a surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Friday to meet president Volodymyr Zelensky.
The prime minister was due to give a speech at the conference in Doncaster but pulled out with just a few hours’ notice — prompting accusations that he was doing colleagues just days before what promises to be a bruising by-election in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
But Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse minister who now chairs the Northern Research Group (NRG) of red wall MPs, said he did not believe the prime minister was trying to “run away” from northern voters.
“Some of my colleagues were quite angry that he didn’t come,” he told Times Radio.
“But I don’t accept this sort of premise that it was a chicken run to keep running away from northern voters — as a sort of living embodiment of the Chicken Kyiv, almost.
“I simply don’t accept that as a premise.
“He is prime minister of the United Kingdom and he made great progress.”
In Kyiv Johnson announced the UK would launch a training program for up to 10,000 Ukrainian troops every 120 days, allowing them to “accelerate their deployment, rebuild their forces and scale-up their resistance” to Vladimir Putin.
While some Tory MPs welcomed the visit to Ukraine, it angered others given that only weeks ago 41 per cent of colleagues opted to oust Johnson as PM.
One told Sky News: “This is the first test of outreach to his colleagues and he’s failed it”.
Another told the Guardian: “It’s no loss to us but the PM ought to be making every effort to support and respect the people who hold his future in his hands.”
However, others leapt to his defence. Chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke said people “seriously need to check their priorities”.
He is leading literally high level talks with the President of Ukraine, a nation still fighting for survival in large part thanks to the leadership @BorisJohnson has shown. I think people seriously need to check their priorities. https://t.co/VZtVruIZO6
— Simon Clarke MP (@SimonClarkeMP) June 17, 2022
The Tories are defending two seats in by-elections on Thursday; one in Wakefield and one Tiverton and Honiton.
The party is widely expected to lose in the Wakefield contest, triggered after the constituency’s former Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are mounting a significant challenge in the South West that could fracture another brick in Johnson’s blue wall in the south.
Berry claimed that there remains a “wellspring” of support for the prime minister at Wakefield, despite projections that the Tories are on course to lose the red wall seat.
The MP for Rossendale and Darwen told Times Radio: “I was in Wakefield yesterday with a team of people from my constituency.
“The few people I spoke to, there was a wellspring still there for the Conservatives and the Prime Minister.
“It is going to be really difficult by-election: it was a seat that we won very marginally in 2019 and we’re 12 years into a Conservative government.
“When I was chatting to people on the ground, it’s by refocusing and delivering on our plan to change their lives for the better that this government and the Conservative Party will make sure that whatever happens next Thursday, that we win the next general election. ”
Recent polls have given Labor a lead of 20 points over the Tories, however, internal polling seen by the Sunday Times reduces that stretch to just eight points.