Upset among northern Tory MPs after Boris Johnson swaps summit for Ukraine

ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana reports on how some Tory MPs representing key northern seats reacted to the PM's surprise visit to Ukraine

Early Friday morning we still thought that Boris Johnson would be heading to Doncaster to attend a conference of the Northern Research Group (NRG). Certainly, the 35-odd MPs gathered together at the town's racecourse to talk about Tory policy for the North of England were still expecting him. And then, suddenly, in the regular morning briefing from Downing Street, journalists were told he would no longer be going, and then the PM turned up in Kyiv alongside President Zelenskyy.

Landing back in the UK on Saturday, the PM was asked what he'd say to critics who accuse him of using Ukraine as a distraction from the issues he faces in Westminster

Now on the one hand, trips to Ukraine are inevitably organised quickly and in complete secrecy, and as far as excuses go for not turning up - it is a pretty good one. It is also true that the PM's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and his unquestionably strong relationship with President Zelenskyy, is seen as a positive among voters - and his parliamentary colleagues.

His no-show in Doncaster, however, caused huge disappointment among those who were waiting for him there - and that might be an understatement. One MP said it was a "disgrace", another said it was a massive shame that what should have been a positive trip to Ukraine instead looked like the PM shunning the north of England.

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A senior NRG source - arguably speaking while still seeing red - went further: "The PM has shown contempt for levelling up, contempt for voters, and contempt for the north of England." Now that is quite a statement, so it is worth delving into why this event - and the PM's attendance of it - was seen as so important. Firstly, this is a very important group of MPs - particularly for Mr Johnson. They represent what you might call "red wall" constituencies - and, therefore, the hundreds of thousands of voters who switched from Labour to Tory for the first time in 2019 - and, in doing so, handed the Tories a thumping majority.

Boris Johnson and Volodomyr Zelenskyy visit the square where damaged Russian military vehicles are displayed in Kyiv. Credit: AP

Secondly, they are perhaps best placed to judge whether the prime minster can deliver his biggest single domestic pledge - to level up the country. The NRG's chair Jake Berry gave a big speech on the issue that was really interesting. He warned Tories that they can't assume all those borrowed votes in 2019 will remain with the party. He argued there was a need to not just talk about levelling up - but deliver it. And he had some big ideas: Calling for a Levelling Up formula for the regions - to distribute funds in the way the devolved nations get them; calling for "devo-max", in which government departments have their main bases outside of London and satellite offices in Whitehall; allowing regions to cut their own taxes; and a huge focus on skills with a target of 50% of young people (up from 21%) doing higher level apprenticeships. Mr Berry - the MP for Rossendale and Darwen - said that if the north of England had received as much per head funding on transport as London over the past decade - it would have got £66bn more. This event was important for the party - and that is why Rishi Sunak turned up last night, and the PM was meant to be there today - to react as the star guest.

Housing secretary Michael Gove ended up giving a speech, albeit by video link.

Instead, he cancelled so last minute that there was a scramble to find someone else. The Kent MP - and leadership hopeful, Tom Tugendhat was on a panel at the conference, and was sent a text while speaking to ask him to deliver a speech on the main stage.

Michael Gove spoke - but by video link. Some watching said it was unfortunate for the PM that Mr Tugendhat was there offering these northern MPs a vision they quite liked. The defence secretary Ben Wallace has taken to Twitter to the defend the PM saying there is a lot of "rubbish being spouted about the PM's trip to Ukraine" - insisting that for security reasons these trips are organised in total secrecy, have to happen in person sometimes to avoid phones, with timing usually a matter for the hosts. "As a Northern MP myself I am not affronted by the fact he had to cancel speaking at the conference. The PM can remedy that," Mr Wallace said. But those MPs who are upset, feel it is terrible optics ahead of a by-election in one of those 2019 seats - Wakefield. A seat that the PM hasn't yet visited during this campaign. Sources say it is lost anyway, and different to others that they hope to hold onto. But when he gets back the PM has some making up to do.