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Why is Boris Johnson staying away from Davos this year?

Andrew Woodcock
World leaders will gather in Davos for the World Economic Forum from Tuesday 21 January: Reuters

The World Economic Forum at Davos is the globe’s biggest annual gathering of movers and shakers in politics and business. Donald Trump is there today. Angela Merkel and the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, will be there. Even Prince Charles is giving a speech, as well as teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg.

But Boris Johnson is not there, and the only member of his cabinet to attend – Sajid Javid, the chancellor – is keeping a relatively low profile, taking part in just one panel event on Wednesday, on the scarcely headline-grabbing theme of the future of financial markets.

Downing Street says that Mr Javid’s presence gives the lie to reports that the PM issued a blanket ban on ministers attending. And spokespeople rightly point out that previous prime ministers have not joined the glitterati on the slopes in Switzerland every year.

But why has Mr Johnson chosen not to attend this year?

True, he has previously described the summit as “a great big constellation of egos involved in massive mutual orgies of adulation”, which suggests he does not hold it in the highest respect.

But that did not stop him from taking part every year from 2009 to 2014, when he was mayor of London.

He said then that it was a “very important” opportunity for politicians wanting to attract investment – something which is surely a priority for the UK in the looming world of Brexit.

“You just have to chuck a snowball into a cocktail party at Davos and you’d hit someone with a sovereign wealth fund who would fund a piece of infrastructure,” said Mr Johnson in 2013. And with his plans to “level up” the UK regions by pouring billions into roads and railways and broadband and buses over the next few years, anyone would have thought that he would want to be schmoozing at the event as PM.

But sharing cocktails with the super-wealthy in an exclusive ski resort is not exactly the image which this new champion of the “left behind” towns of the midlands and north of England wants to project for his administration.

Rather than hobnobbing with the “global elite” who are the target of so much Brexiteer scorn, Mr Johnson wants his ministers to be seen at their desks “working flat out to change our country for the better”, as he put it at the first cabinet meeting after the election.

Boris Johnson speaks during his first cabinet meeting since the general election (AP)

And a fortnight before Brexit day ushers in the biggest dose of self-inflicted economic upheaval the UK has experienced since the war, it might not be the right time for ministers to be away from the office.

One administration source was quoted shortly before Christmas saying: “Our focus is on delivering for the people, not champagne with billionaires.”

It remains very much open to question, though, whether this self-denying ordinance will persuade voters that the PM has never shared the odd glass of champagne with a billionaire or two.

And, anyway, it seems that the mini-boycott may not last for long. Sources suggest the Davos ban is only for this year and ministerial attendance at next year’s shindig is open for review, so Mr Johnson may not have to wait too long for his next “orgy of adulation”.

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