Since his premiership nearly sank a few weeks ago, Boris Johnson has done more foreign travel and frantic diplomacy than in all his previous years as prime minister combined.
He has made phone calls almost daily to Volodymyr Zelenskiy as the war with Russia rages, and won praise from the Ukrainian president during his emotive video address to the House of Commons.
And he has flitted to Kyiv, Munich, Poland, Estonia, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, as he tries to position himself as an international powerbroker in the new post-Brexit order, galvanising action against the Kremlin and dealing with the consequent shortfall in non-Russian energy supplies.
Johnson is also likely to attend a Nato summit next week in Brussels, alongside the US president, Joe Biden, but the American leader is not currently thought to have any plans to make a detour to London.
“It’s almost like he’s worried he won’t have many more opportunities to play the international statesman and his next tour is going to be on the lecture circuit,” said one unsympathetic Tory MP who also pointed to Johnson being forced to make friends with “second-tier” leaders rather than Biden, Olaf Scholz or Emmanuel Macron.
But some in Johnson’s party are impressed. Some Conservative backbenchers claim to have been won round by Johnson’s decision to apply himself proactively to the international crisis triggered by Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine.
At least two – out of more than a dozen – Conservative MPs have now withdrawn letters of no confidence in their leader, saying now is not the time for a change. And Johnson himself appears to have gained new vigour, after coming so close to being ousted.
Although he was widely seen as a chaotic and gaffe-prone foreign secretary, with insufficient grasp of diplomatic details, those close to the prime minister say it is a part of the job that interests him much more than domestic policy detail. As a politician with a lifelong obsession with Winston Churchill, Johnson appears to be in his element in the role of war leader – despite the UK not being directly involved in the conflict. One person present on his latest trip to the Gulf said he appeared far happier this week meeting world leaders and having his photograph taken than he was “sitting behind a desk”.
“This could be like Boris’s Falklands moment,” said Ryan Shorthouse, the chief executive of the Conservative thinktank Bright Blue. “The polls seem to indicate that the fall in support for the Conservatives seems to have stopped as a result of the crisis in eastern Europe, which would indicate that the public consciousness has moved on from the breaking of rules inside No 10.”
He added that the crisis had “taken away the story from Partygate”, just as the Covid pandemic “masked some of the consequences of Brexit”.
Like his foreign secretary, Liz Truss, whose Instagram profile channels Margaret Thatcher with pictures of her driving a tank, Johnson has used the international crisis to burnish his image. It has given him endless opportunities to be pictured in front of union flags, walking down red carpets and shaking hands with dignitaries.
On many of the trips, journalists have not been given access, apart from one broadcaster and one wire reporter, so there is little visibility about what Johnson is doing – or promising – to his fellow international leaders while out of the country. For his visit to Ukraine in early February, the media were told there was “no room” on the 300-seat taxpayer-funded plane.
And for his visits to UAE and Saudi Arabia, where Johnson was explicitly going to seek deals for more oil and investment, he also excluded the majority of the press. Accompanying him was Gerry Grimstone, a trade minister who is a former adviser to the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and who has had deep business links with the Middle East.
Part of the prime minister’s buoyancy is because his allies believe the plot against his premiership is over, with one telling the Daily Mail on Thursday that he would not lose a leadership challenge even if handed a penalty by the police. They are now confident he will fight the next general election and win. One Tory MP with a tin ear told the Guardian that the war in Ukraine meant “the mood is now really good in the party”.
Domestically, Johnson’s activities also have the feel of a soft relaunch of his premiership, with the Tory chair saying a two-year election campaign would start from this May. The prime minister is speaking on Friday at the Scottish Conservatives’ conference, before heading to Blackpool on Saturday for the Tory spring conference – the first time in years that the event has been billed as a major event.
The aim is to convince the party faithful that Johnson’s premiership is worth fighting for as the crucial May elections approach and to entrench him as the incumbent candidate, putting him back in campaign mode. In his foreword to the spring conference guide, the prime minister said his argument would be “an optimistic vision for the future of our country”.
Those keeping a close eye on the public find a more mixed picture, however. Some Conservative MPs report voters may be distracted by the pressures of the cost of living crisis and worry over the Ukraine-Russia conflict, but many have not changed their minds that the prime minister should have resigned. “They’re saying he’s done better in relation to Ukraine but they haven’t forgotten the cake,” said one veteran Tory former cabinet minister.
Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and elections expert, said the impact of the Ukraine crisis on Johnson’s reputation “has two effects: one is the leadership effect, and there are signs that Macron and, to a lesser extent, Biden are having the same benefit. And then there’s a second effect, the obliteration factor, which is that by keeping on the page dealing with an international drama such as this, you hide other things.”
Luke Tryl, a former Conservative aide and a UK director of More in Common, who has been carrying out regular focus groups with voters across the country, said the crisis “definitely changes the subject”.
“Whereas at the start of February, the first thing people would come to when you asked them about stuff they’d seen in the news was Partygate, now, everyone says Ukraine,” he said.
But he was not convinced the public were warming to Johnson the international statesman. “Some of the stuff that people quite liked about Boris, they now see as a little bit of a liability when we’re dealing with an invasion, a major international event. In some red wall groups we’ve had people say things like, ‘What do the other world leaders think of the fact that he doesn’t do his hair?’”
He added: “If you prompt them on Partygate, they come back with the same level of crossness. It’s suspended it in time. If you ask about what should happen if he gets a fixed-penalty fine, people normally say some version of, ‘Well he obviously should resign; I don’t think he will though.’”