Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of “making it up as he goes along” during a fiery exchange at PMQs amid growing Tory wrath over his summer of U-turns – described by one Conservative MP as a “mega-disaster from one day to the next”.
The embattled prime minister sought to reassure his Cabinet as they reconvened on Tuesday after the summer recess that although in the last few months they have been “sailing into the teeth of a gale, no question ... sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change, in response to the wind’s change”.
Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak has been warned against “shortsighted” alleged plans to divert billions from the foreign aid budget to pay for defence and intelligence upgrades, as Dominic Raab pledged to fight famine as he launched the controversial new department set to replace the Department for International Development.
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Boris Johnson to face MPs wrath after summer of U-turns
The prime minister will today return to the Commons after presiding over a series of U-turns that have soured Conservative backbench opinion towards the government's handling of the pandemic, described by one Tory MP as "mega-disaster from one day to the next".
On Tuesday, Mr Johnson told ministers that in the last few months they have been "sailing into the teeth of a gale, no question" when chairing his first Cabinet meeting after the return.
"And I am no great nautical expert, but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change, in response to the wind's change, but we have been going steadily in the direction, in the course we set out, and we have not been blown off that course," he said.
There would still be "some turbulence ahead" and things would be "difficult" on the economic front, while the need remained to "get this disease absolutely out of our systems", Mr Johnson added.
But many Tory backbenchers are frustrated by the Government's handling of the crisis, with one senior Conservative MP telling the PA news agency his colleagues are "tired of the U-turns".
He said there is an "element of calamity" and that there are Tories from marginal and so-called red wall seats that were won in the last election from Labour who are "getting jittery".
"We'd like to be in a government that has the impression of being competent, rather than lurching from one issue to another and then after a short time doing a U-turn," he added.
PM not expected to meet with disgruntled backbenchers
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said the panel's executives expect to meet Boris Johnson in the "near future" to relay the concerns of backbenchers after a summer of U-turns.
"I think there is a lot of sympathy [among Conservative MPs] for the fact it has been unprecedented, but then I think we mustn't make other own goals," he told the Press Association.
"We may have a big majority but that still doesn't mean to say that we shouldn't be as competent as possible as a government."
The influential committee of backbenchers is due to meet on Wednesday, but the prime minister was not expected to address them.
...as Dominic Raab pledges to fight famine while launching DfID replacement
Dominic Raab has announced an £119m package - which comes from within the existing aid budget - to tackle extreme hunger in developing nations as he took the helm of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) on Wednesday, which is to replace the dramatically axed Department for International Development.
The merger with the Foreign Office provoked widespread criticism, including from charities and three former prime ministers, that it would harm the world's poorest people.
But Mr Raab is pledging to use diplomacy and the aid budget to alleviate the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, conflict and climate change, saying that today's announcement would help alleviate extreme hunger for over six million people in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Central African Republic, the Sahel, South Sudan and Sudan..
"Global Britain, as a force for good in the world, is leading by example and bringing the international community together to tackle these deadly threats, because it's the right thing to do and it protects British interests," he said in a statement. "We can only tackle these global challenges by combining our diplomatic strength with our world-leading aid expertise."
However, he failed to mention the aid budget in his statement amid reports that the government is considering billions in cuts to pay for defence and intelligence upgrades.
Rishi Sunak warned against 'shortsighted' cuts to aid budget as alleged plans spark fury
Some Tory MPs have reacted angrily to suggestions that ministers could axe the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid, which Downing Street has sought to dismiss as "speculation".
The Times also reports today that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is seeking to divert billions of pounds from foreign aid to pay for upgrades to the UK's intelligence and defence capabilities. A Treasury source also dismissed this report as "speculation" but there have been concerns among Conservatives nonetheless.
"With the ink hardly dry on our manifesto, I don't think the House of Commons would easily agree to balance the books on the backs of the poorest women and children in the world," said former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell.
Meanwhile, the Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee Tobias Ellwood said the cut would be "shortsighted in failing to appreciate how well-targeted aid can strengthen relationships and open up new markets - thus helping the Treasury".
Conservative former prime minister David Cameron previously warned the merger was a "mistake" and that it would result in the UK commanding "less respect" on the global stage.
‘Following the science’ cost significant number of lives, think tank warns
A study into ministers’ handling of the crisis has concluded that the government’s failure to take decisive decisions during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic likely caused “a significant number” of extra deaths, our policy correspondent Jon Stone reports.
The Institute for Government (IfG), a respected think-tank, says over-reliance by ministers on the claim that they were “following the science” meant that decisions were not taken where scientific certainty was lacking and that decisions often “lacked a wider sense of strategy”.
The warning comes amid calls for an inquiry into handling of the pandemic and why the UK ended up with the highest excess death rate in Europe during the first peak.
In particular, the IfG criticised a decision by health secretary Matt Hancock to set a policy of increasing daily testing to an arbitrary target “without a strong enough sense of how the government would use additional capacity”.
'Heartless' Boris Johnson accused of fresh U-turn after failing to meet bereavement group
When questioned last week about attempts by the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group to secure a meeting, Boris Johnson told Sky News: "Of course I will meet the bereaved."
But the campaigners trying to secure a swift public inquiry into the government's handling of the crisis shared a letter from the prime minister in which he "regrettably" declined to meet with the group.
"As much as I would wish to be able to offer my condolences in person to all those who have suffered loss, that is regrettably not possible and so I am unable to meet with you and members of Bereaved Families for Justice," he wrote.
"It's a U-turn followed by a U-turn," said campaign co-founder Jo Goodman, who lost her father Stuart to the virus. "The prime minister has done a 360: dodging five letters, then agreeing on live TV to meet with us, and now quietly telling us he's too busy. It's heartless."
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran had earlier written to the Prime Minister saying she was "shocked" to learn that he had "refused" to meet the group - which says it represents 1,600 families.
Westminster faces pressure to act after Scotland and Wales impose Greece quarantine rules
The Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething has said he intends to press the UK government for an urgent meeting to consider the risk posed by rising cases in Greece, after he announced travellers from Zante must quarantine for two weeks - a rule also imposed on those travelling from anywhere in Greece to Scotland.
Restrictions for Greece were lifted in England in July when international exemptions were first permitted. There were 14.0 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in Greece in the seven days to 31 August, down from 14.9 a week earlier.
A seven-day rate of 20 is the threshold above which the UK government considers triggering quarantine conditions.
Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf said the "importations of new cases from Greece is a significant risk to public health", adding that "regular discussions continue" with the other three UK governments over restrictions.
Mr Gething said six clusters amounting to more than 30 cases of Covid-19 in the last week had come from four flights, two of which landed in England, adding: "There are concerns from our public health teams that the current advice and control measures for returning travellers are insufficient."
'I certainly dodged a bullet,' Jeremy Hunt says
Asked if he "dodged a bullet" in not becoming prime minister this year, Boris Johnson's main rival in the 2019 Tory leadership contest replied, laughing: "Well I certainly dodged a bullet, there's no question when you look at the year that poor Boris has had ... it's been a very tough year for anyone who was prime minister, absolutely no question about it, to deal with a pandemic, completely unprecedented.
"I would have loved to have done the job but I recognise that Boris Johnson did something very important, which is that he got an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives," former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said.
"And whether or not you love or loathe the Conservatives, we do now have political stability, and all the problems we faced in the year prior to that with a hung parliament, I don't think anyone would have wanted to have that kind of instability in the challenges we currently face."
Boris Johnson has hit 'new low' with U-turn on meeting bereavement group
Despite telling Sky News last week that "of course I will meet the bereaved", Boris Johnson has now written to the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group to say it is "regrettably not possible" for him to offer condolences in person to all those who have lost loved ones.
The group - which is pushing for an independent inquiry into the crisis - says it represents 1,600 families.
"These revelations that bereaved families had to write to Boris Johnson five times asking to meet him - for him to privately go back on his public word and refuse are astounding, and upsetting for so many whose families and lives have been impacted by Covid in this way," said shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves.
"41,504 people have tragically lost their lives to this virus. The very least the prime minister could do is respond truthfully to their families, and have the heart to meet some of them and their representatives. The prime minister has been going back on his word all summer - but to not even meet with grieving families hits a new low."
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