Downing Street has gone into open battle with the Church of England over its condemnation of the Rwanda deportation scheme, after No 10 officials doubled down on Boris Johnson’s criticism that archbishops were being unfairly critical.
After Johnson told prime minister’s questions he was “slightly taken aback” by comments from the archbishops of Canterbury and York, his press secretary declined to deny the PM had claimed the church was being more vocal about the asylum policy than in its criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But in a statement on Wednesday, Lambeth Palace said Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, would continue to speak out about the plan to sport asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda on “moral and ethical grounds”, setting the ground for an ongoing fight over the policy.
A series of reports said that following Tuesday’s Commons apology after being fined for breaking lockdown rules, Johnson told a meeting of Conservative MPs that Welby and the BBC had focused more on criticizing the government than condemning Russia and Vladimir Putin.
The Labor leader, Keir Starmer, accused Johnson at PMQs of “attacking the institutions of our great country”, adding: “That’s how he operates. A mealy-mouthed apology when the cameras roll. A vicious attack on those who tell the truth as soon as the cameras are off.”
Johnson denied attacking the BBC, saying: “I said nothing of the kind, and I have the highest admiration, as a former journalist, for what journalists do.” The idea he had attacked the BBC was “completely without any foundation whatever”, he said.
But asked by Starmer if he would “like to take this opportunity to apologize for slandering the archbishop and the Church of England”, Johnson said only that he was “slightly taken aback for the government to be criticized over the policy that we have devised” on Rwanda.
Speaking after PMQs. Johnson’s press secretary said that while she could not comment on comments made at a private meeting, she stressed Johnson had not criticized the BBC for its coverage of Ukraine.
Asked what Johnson thought about the church’s criticisms of the Rwanda plan, as against its comments on Russia, she said: “You heard him answer the first point, where he said he was surprised to be criticized for a policy that is designed to end deaths at sea that are a result of people being exploited by criminal gangs.”
The church spokesperson said: “The archbishops of Canterbury and York have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an act of great evil and spoken out repeatedly against it. In his Easter sermon he the archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the suffering and terror being experienced by Ukrainians, called on Russia to withdraw its forces and said ‘let the darkness of war be banished’. ”
Separately, Labor has said it will publicize the votes of any Conservative MPs who oppose a motion being debated in the Commons on Thursday which seeks to have the Commons privileges committee investigate whether Johnson misled MPs by initially saying no Covid rules had been broken in Downing Street .
The motion – jointly tabled by Labour, the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, SDLP and Alliance parties – sets out that the committee should look into whether a series of denials of wrongdoing by Johnson “appear to amount to misleading the house” , given Johnson and others have now been fined.
The inquiry committee would not conclude before the end of the ongoing Met police investigation, the motion says, trying to head off possible objections or amendments by the government.
Asked if the motion would be used in part to highlight Tory MPs who oppose it, a spokesperson for Starmer said: “We certainly think that anyone who doesn’t support our motion is sending a message that they don’t believe that honesty and integrity matters in public life.
“We will be absolutely looking to ensure that there is a price for Conservative MPs in the way in which we campaign, and the advertising that we will be putting out in individual constituencies, highlighting the fact that individual Tory MPs have decided not to support an investigation into these matters.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism