Boris Johnson should know that running away from his problems won’t make them disappear

When a prime minister is in trouble at home, they rarely escape their woes by travelling abroad

Boris Johnson says he does not expect direct war with Russia

When he set off on his eight-day, three-summit marathon in Rwanda, Germany and Spain, Boris Johnson hoped his travels would bolster his position at home, at least by reminding Tory MPs about the strong leadership he has undoubtedly displayed on Ukraine.

But the war is a diminishing asset for him domestically, both among his MPs and the public. A fatigue factor was bound to set in as the conflict dragged on. It cannot eclipse the cost of living crisis or Partygate.

When a prime minister is in trouble at home, they rarely escape their woes by travelling abroad. To avoid the charge of running away from scrutiny, Johnson had to devote hours of media interviews during the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda to his own survival prospects after his party’s double by-election defeat. Although some Tory MPs believed Johnson should have cut short his tour to face the domestic music, that would have made matters worse by destroying his “getting on with the job” mantra.

Johnson’s stance on the war deservedly wins plaudits in Ukraine but his fellow world leaders are less impressed. They note the irony of a prime minister defending the “rules-based international system” in Ukraine while ripping it up at home by taking powers to override the Northern Ireland protocol. The legislation has increased Johnson’s already large trust deficit among other leaders.

I’m told that Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, is “not much interested in Johnson”, is surprised he’s still in power and assumes he will not be soon. A lame duck leader inevitably has less clout on the world stage; members of the leaders’ club are well aware of each other’s troubles at home.

Johnson’s parlous position makes it less likely his incendiary move on Northern Ireland will work. “Why would we give him anything now?” one EU diplomat told me, admitting any concessions on the protocol would probably be held back for Johnson’s successor.  The PM’s supporters insist his enemies – whether at home or abroad – write off the great survivor at their own peril.

But we have been here before. Theresa May, who knows all about lame duck syndrome, told MPs on Monday: “As I discovered after I had faced a no-confidence vote... they [the EU] then start to ask themselves, well is it really worth negotiating with these people in government because will they actually be there in any period of time?”

Despite the headlines and public backslapping, there was no real “bromance” between Johnson and Emmanuel Macron when they met in the margins of the G7 summit in Bavaria. The word in EU diplomatic circles is that Johnson “made a fool of Macron” by expressing interest in his idea of a “European political community”, wider than the EU, that could include the UK, and then briefing that he was merely being polite. One source said: “The French and Americans think he is posturing on Ukraine, talking up unity all the time but saying and doing things that are divisive.”

At the Nato summit in Madrid today, Johnson is urging the UK’s fellow members to boost their defence budgets to combat the Russian threat. The UK is among the frontrunners on Nato’s target to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, but the government is now in a bit of a pickle about going further.

Johnson claims the figure this year will be 2.3 per cent when help for Ukraine is included; Nato puts the UK at 2.1 per cent. But soaring inflation means the Tories will not keep their 2019 manifesto pledge to raise the budget in real terms every year. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, is lobbying in public for more, calling for an end to “smoke and mirrors” budget commitments, but Rishi Sunak is trying to hold the line.

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Some European officials dislike the tough talk on Ukraine from Johnson and Liz Truss. Speaking to three European newspapers, the foreign secretary said there cannot be “some uneasy peace where Russia is still present in Ukraine”, reiterating her goal to “push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine”, including Crimea.

That is seen as unrealistic in some EU capitals, since Vladimir Putin is not going to give up his ill-gotten gains. In turn, UK ministers suspect the French and Germans will put long-term relations with Russia and their domestic economies ahead of solidarity with Ukraine when the crunch comes, as it will.

Although the G7 and Nato summits maintained a united front on Ukraine, it might not last. Tensions lurk just beneath the surface, and a nightmare scenario is looming into view: Russia captures the whole of the Donbas and proposes a ceasefire and peace talks, in the hope it can revitalise its war machine and divide the West.

At such a pressure point, Johnson will doubtless argue that the map of Europe cannot be redrawn by force. But he may find himself with fewer friends and allies abroad than he needs, and would have only himself to blame.

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