Boris Johnson was accused of “running away” from his Partygate crisis last night, as he flew to India for a trade trip that critics said would achieve nothing significant.
Opposition parties seized on the agenda for the visit, with no post-Brexit trade deal to be agreed – and with the prime minister set to avoid a confrontation over India’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The two-day trip means Mr Johnson will be absent when he orders his MPs to block a Commons inquiry into evidence that he misled parliament about the lockdown-busting parties.
No 10 is announcing a deal for a company rescued from bankruptcy by Dominic Cummings using £400m of UK taxpayers’ money to launch satellites from India.
The OneWeb contract is among a raft of commercial agreements and export deals with the giant south Asian economy, valued by Downing Street at £1bn in total.
But Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, said Mr Johnson was jetting out without preparing to push forward a long-promised trade deal, by engaging with businesses, trade unions, and civic groups.
Any agreement faces the formidable obstacle of Indian demands for more visas to settle and work in the UK – and no breakthroughs are expected.
Mr Thomas-Symonds said: “The prime minister should be taking trade negotiations with India seriously to make sure they deliver for the British people.
“Instead, he is using them to try and distract from the fact he is whipping his MPs to go through the lobby to hide his law breaking and the ever-growing cost of living crisis.”
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, said: “Boris Johnson’s desperation to escape parliamentary scrutiny is made plain by his trip to India.
“We’re told that the prime minister won’t achieve anything on this trip – he won’t sign a trade deal, and he won’t talk tough on Ukraine.”
And Naomi Smith, chief executive of better democracy campaign group Best for Britain, said: “The fact that this trip means Johnson will miss a key debate and vote on his own lawbreaking is more than just a coincidence. His running away from him shows he does n’t have the bottle.
Downing Street has said it is urging every country to “do everything they can” to ensure “Putin fails” in Ukraine, recently urging China’s president to intervene, in a long phone call.
But it has said the prime minister will not attempt to “read” Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, who has also refused to scale back military and energy purchases from Moscow.
Instead, the pair will discuss “constructive” proposals for alternative sources to cut India’s reliance on Russia.
Any agreement on visas, to enable a trade deal, would have to be compatible with Britain’s post-Brexit employer-sponsored immigration system, which favors workers with in-demand skills, Downing Street has said.
At Westminster, any Conservative MP tempted to back a motion to send the Partygate controversy to the Commons privileges committee is likely to be threatened with the removal of the party whip.
Charles Walker, vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said he would abstain and predicted there would be no attempt to topple Mr Johnson as party leader in the “foreseeable future”.
But, he told the BBC: “If the ends keep racking up there is only so long that the prime minister will be able to lean on his party for support.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.