Boris Johnson accused of 'contempt for the North' after snubbing Doncaster appearance

Boris Johnson has been accused of showing “contempt for the North” after cancelling a planned levelling up talk to Conservative MPs and supporters in Yorkshire to visit Ukraine.

By Chris Burn
Saturday, 18th June 2022, 9:51 am
Updated Saturday, 18th June 2022, 9:52 am

The Prime Minister had been due to be the star speaker at the first conference of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs at Doncaster Racecourse today.

Around 30 MPs were in attendance, along with hundreds of Conservative supporters and local business executives in what had been billed as a chance for Mr Johnson to win back support after last week’s confidence vote.

Organisers had expected Mr Johnson to attend despite overnight reports that he would not be travelling to Yorkshire. But just three hours before he was scheduled to speak, Northern Research Group chairman Jake Berry confirmed Mr Johnson would not be attending.

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Volodymyr Zelensky (right) meeting Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has made a surprise visit to Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv instead of his planned appearance at a Tory conference in Doncaster

It was subsequently confirmed Mr Johnson had instead travelled to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was Mr Johnson’s second visit to Kyiv since Russian president Vladimir Putin began his offensive in February. Mr Johnson pledged training of up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers every 120 days.

Mr Berry said: “When you have the Prime Minister of your country who is going to come and attend your conference, which is brilliant, and he’s a huge supporter and has been in touch to wish us all the best, occasionally things happen, which I understand will come out in the next hour about why he’s had to cancel the whole of his tour to the North of England today. It is an unfortunate thing but at the end of the day, he’s Prime Minister of our country and things come up.

“Are we disappointed? Absolutely yes, really disappointed but we do have to accept that sometimes Prime Ministers do have to do other things than come to conferences.”

Mr Johnson was replaced by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove who appeared via videolink but the situation caused major disappointment among many at the conference.

A senior Northern Research Group source said: “Boris agreed to come and speak to the biggest caucus of Conservatives in the party. This group, who represent his majority, and came through for him in the leadership vote.

“That goodwill is gone. His actions have shown a total contempt for colleagues, contempt for members and contempt for the North.”

One unnamed Conservative MP at the event told Sky News they had been told Mr Johnson “was on the train to Doncaster” on Friday morning. “This is the first test of outreach to his colleagues and he’s failed it”, they said.

But chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke hit back at the criticism. He wrote on Twitter: “He is literally leading high level talks with the President of Ukraine, a nation still fighting for survival in large part thanks to the leadership Boris Johnson has shown. I think people seriously need to check their priorities.”

Mr Johnson's cancelled appearance resulted in a change of schedule which saw backbench MP Tom Tugendhat invited to appear on the main stage of the conference, having previously been on a panel earlier in the day.

Mr Tugendhat won applause after making a direct leadership pitch in which he told fellow Tory Parliamentarians and party supporters that there is a “huge opportunity for unity”.

Earlier this year the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee became the first to announce his intention to stand for leader should Mr Johnson be turfed out.

The former soldier, who has been a trenchant critic of Mr Johnson, was asked yesterday if he would “rule out” a future leadership bid following last week's confidence vote in Mr Johnson.

Mr Tugendhat said: “I won’t rule it out because I think we should be ambitious for ourselves, for our communities and our country. I think we should offer ourselves forward for service, I think that is exactly the reason we have so many fantastic counsellors and MPs in this room because they have had the guts and credibility in themselves to make the argument they are leaders at a local and national level.

“You should offer yourself for service - that is literally the point of being in public service.”

Mr Tugendhat said next week’s by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton “are going to be difficult” for the Conservatives at the midterm point of Government.

“The reality is we have very, very good candidates. We have demonstrated time and again that we have an amazing team of local people who want to support and want to champion this message of liberty, this message of opportunity and this message of unity.

“Ultimately, they really don’t want to run one campaign and Tiverton and another campaign in Wakefield. They want to run a single campaign across the entire United Kingdom because what people who support the Conservative Party do, what people who stand for the Conservative party do is they champion the interests of the entire country. I think there’s a huge opportunity for unity. I don’t think there’s a major division in the party.”

He said party members around the country want a “restart” in a speech that was greeted with a round of applause by the audience in the room.

A Remainer in 2016, the former soldier has been a trenchant critic of Mr Johnson – a stance that would appear to have cost him any chance of ministerial preferment under the current leadership.

He recently sought to distance himself from a call by his fellow Remainer, Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood, for the UK to rejoin the EU single market.