OPINION - Boris Johnson steps up war of words with Archbishop of Canterbury

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 (West End Final)
(West End Final)

Last week, a war of words between the Conservative Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury was not on my bingo card. But this is 2022, and as Donald Rumsfeld almost said, you open your newsletter with the headlines you have, not the headlines you might wish to have.

The row began when Justin Welby criticised the Government’s Rwanda refugee policy during his Easter sermon, arguing that it “cannot carry the weight of our national responsibility as a country formed by Christian values”.

(One could argue the row truly started in 1534 when Henry VIII separated the English Church from Rome which eventually led to today’s settlement where the Church of England, whose supreme governor is the monarch, and whose bishops – set at a maximum of 26 – have the right to sit in the House of Lords. But hey-ho).

Following a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers last night, the Telegraph reported Boris Johnson said that both the Archbishop and the BBC (because there is not a cherished institution this prime minister is not prepared to trash to get a laugh or save his skin) were “less vociferous“ in their criticism of Vladimir Putin than the government over the controversial refugee proposal.

At PMQs today, Johnson denied the BBC comments, but on Welby said he was “slightly taken aback for the government to be criticised over the policy that we have devised”. If this sounds incendiary, bear in mind it was only yesterday evening the prime minister had declared his sincere remorse to the House of Commons after accepting a £50 fine for breaking his own Covid-19 regulations.

Johnson’s alleged comments also rather overlook Welby’s previous statements on Ukraine. For example, on the day of the Russian invasion, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, jointly condemned Putin’s attack on Ukraine as “an act of great evil”.

This afternoon, Lambeth Palace reinforced its position on the Rwanda policy, saying in a statement: “Both Archbishops, along with many other faith leaders, are gravely concerned by proposals to send migrants overseas. They will continue to speak out against these plans on moral and ethical grounds.”

It is not immediately clear what Johnson’s plan is here (this is perhaps ungodly but for context, YouGov gives Welby a net positive approval.) Most likely there is no plan. The prime minister is fighting a crisis entirely of his own making, and he will do or say anything to deflect in order to ensure his survival. In fairness, that strategy has taken him to the top of British politics.

Elsewhere in the paper, are you excited for next month’s local elections? As millions of Londoners get ready to go to the polls on May 5, local democracy reporter Joe Talora shines a spotlight on the east London Labour stronghold, Barking & Dagenham. The first in a series not to be missed.

In the comment pages, BBC Eastern Europe Correspondent Sarah Rainsford – who has been expelled from Moscow – says that in Russia, the truth has been criminalised and lies are a weapon of war.

Meanwhile, Home Affairs Editor Martin Bentham writes that the government’s Rwanda scheme is flawed, but asks: what will work? And City Editor Oscar Williams-Grut calls on Rishi Sunak to act now in order to tackle spiralling energy bills.

Finally, there’s more to living meat-free than another mushroom risotto. Clare Finney maps out London’s best vegetarian restaurants (that will appeal to meat-eaters too).

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