Boris Johnson has hit back at Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby over his criticism of sending illegal migrants to Rwanda, claiming the top clergy should be condemning Vladimir Putin instead.
In an upbeat speech to Tory MPs after his partygate apology in the Commons, the prime minister said that while bishops attacked the Rwanda deal in their Easter sermons they had been silent about Putin.
Mr Johnson also hit out at Sir Keir Starmer, accusing him of “coarsening political debate” with his personal attacks on him in the Commons, after a Tory MP claimed the Labour leader had been “whipping up hysteria”.
The PM’s fightback – at a behind-closed-doors meeting – was in marked contrast to his more contrite tone in the Commons chamber and was delivered in his characteristic knockabout style.
PM greeted at Tory backbench meeting by banging of desks
During the meeting one Tory MP claimed partygate was “a wet blanket” and other MPs claimed it was not being raised by voters during campaigning for the local elections on 5 May.
Asked by Sky News as he arrived for the meeting flanked by cabinet ministers and Downing Street aides: “How’s your mood, prime minister?” Mr Johnson replied: “Very good, thank you.”
He was then greeted by the ritual banging of desks – which lasted 30 seconds – as he entered the room and immediately launched an appeal for party unity and support as he battles against his critics.
Sources close to the prime minister said he accused the archbishop of being “less vociferous” in his condemnation of President Putin than he was in his attack on the policy.
In his Easter Sunday sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, Mr Welby raised “serious ethical questions” about the policy and said it cannot “stand the judgment of God”.
In the sermon, the archbishop said “sub-contracting out our responsibilities, even to a country that seeks to do well, like Rwanda, is the opposite of the nature of God who himself took responsibility for our failures”.
In a call to his MPs to stick with him, Mr Johnson began his remarks by telling them: “The UK public hates politicians talking about themselves. They want them to talk about their issues.”
Praising cabinet colleagues, he said his embattled Chancellor Rishi Sunak was “doing an outstanding job” and asked them: “Who would you rather run the economy, Rishi or Rachel Reeves?”
And attacking Labour, Mr Johnson said many of the current shadow cabinet supported Jeremy Corbyn as leader, adding: “Where would he be on Ukraine?”
One person present said around 20 MPs asked questions during the meeting, of which only two were “sceptical” and both were known critics of the prime minister.
A source close to the PM claimed one Tory MP Jason McCartney, brought up Jo Cox’s murder in June 2016 while he was attacking the Labour leader.
The source said: “He said Starmer was whipping up hysteria – to remind everyone two MPs were killed – there’s potential here for visceral hatred.
“You saw a lot of that on the opposition benches today.
“The prime minister was more restrained in his response, but said there was a coarsening of debate that does our politics no favours.”
Another Tory MP, Craig Whittaker, was cheered when he said partygate was “an incredibly wet blanket smothering all the good news”.