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Boris Johnson sets off for India trip, missing crunch vote on Partygate

Differences over Ukraine threaten to overshadow visit, but PM promises not to ‘lecture’ Narendra Modi

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 20 April 2022 11:23 BST
Boris Johnson with Narendra Modi (Phil Noble/PA)
Boris Johnson with Narendra Modi (Phil Noble/PA) (PA Wire)

Boris Johnson is today jetting out to India on a long-planned trade trip, missing a crucial House of Commons vote on Thursday on whether he should face a fresh parliamentary investigation into law-breaking parties at 10 Downing Street.

Conservative MPs are expected to be placed under a three-line whip to vote down a Labour motion calling for an inquiry by the Commons Privileges Committee into whether the prime minister’s earlier claims that no rules were broken at No 10 amounted to a contempt of parliament.

But some are disgruntled at being asked to put their reputations on the line for the PM when he is not himself going to be present, just weeks before local government elections at which Labour is expected to accuse any Tory backing Johnson of voting for a cover-up.

It is understood that suggestions of calling off or cutting back the long-planned trip for talks with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi were swiftly dismissed at Downing Street on Tuesday, with sources saying the visit will “definitely” go ahead. Chancellor Rishi Sunak will also be out of the country at IMF meetings in the US.

Mr Johnson will depart for India after what promises to be a gruelling session of prime minister’s questions in the Commons, following his two-hour ordeal on Tuesday at which he repeatedly apologised to MPs for a Downing Street birthday party which breached lockdown rules and resulted in fines for both Johnson and Sunak.

The trip has already been cancelled twice – once because of the winter wave of Covid cases in the UK in January 2021 and then again in April last year, when Mr Johnson was accused of delaying the introduction of new restrictions in the hope of travelling to India, which was then suffering from a new variant of the disease.

No breakthrough is expected on the UK/India trade deal which both sides have said they want to conclude by the end of 2022.

The government believes a deal could provide a boost to UK sectors from services to cars, manufacturing, food and drink. But as ever, progress could founder on Delhi’s demands for enhanced access to visas for its nationals to work and settle in the UK.

The PM’s official spokesperson today said that any increase in the number of visas offered to India would have to be consistent with the UK’s post-Brexit points-based immigration policy, which favours those with in-demand skills.

He pointed to the fact that India remains the top nationality for “skilled work” visas, accounting for 64,839 – more than two-fifths – of the total granted in 2021, compared 6,923 for US nationals.

The initial goal of boosting trade with India in the wake of Brexit threatens to be overshadowed by rows over Ukraine.

Delhi has been resisting pressure from the West to ditch its neutral stance over Russia’s invasion.

Despite sending humanitarian and medical aid to Ukraine, Mr Modi has yet to condemn Moscow’s actions and has stressed the need for dialogue to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Moscow is Delhi’s biggest military supplier, and India has been snapping up millions of barrels of Russian oil since sanctions made its price more competitive in recent months.

Downing Street today said the PM will not seek to “lecture” Modi over the need to isolate Russia, but will instead offer “constructive” proposals for the south Asian sub-continent to diversify its energy and military supplies.

“We are not seeking to lecture Modi or India,” said Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson.

“We recognise that different countries, be it India or others in Europe, are taking slightly different approaches to how they respond to Putin’s aggression.

“We see our role to be not to seek to lecture them or point fingers from the sidelines, but to engage constructively – as we have done in recent years – and talk to them about potential possible alternatives on things like energy and security and defence, not necessarily provided by the UK but globally.”

As well as his trip to New Delhi for talks with Mr Modi, Mr Johnson will visit the western state of Gujarat, where around half of the UK’s 1.4m residents of Indian origin trace their roots.

Downing Street said he expects to seal “significant new investment and jobs announcements and science partnerships” during the trip.

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