CONSERVATIVE MP Tom Tugendhat likes to speak his mind.

The first Conservative MP to declare his ambition to be Prime Minister should Boris Johnson be kicked out of Downing Street, the 48-year-old soldier turned politician was speaking exclusively to The Cumberland News.

He discussed his politcs during a visit to Carlisle last week as he supported John Stevenson, the city’s Conservative MP - though voters delivered a stinging rebuke to the Tories and Johnson.

Tugendhat rose to public prominence in August last year when he gave an unplanned – but deeply moving – speech in the House of Commons about the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan.

He spoke of the chaotic and danger-strewn Taliban takeover which left him and other veterans of that conflict struggling with “anger, grief and rage.” The Taliban’s "success" tore open old wounds, he said, as he remembered seeing “good men go into the earth,” taking part of him and us all.

As chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Tugendhat is more qualified than most to comment on such events – and on the war in Ukraine.

Discussing his politics, Tugendhat made repeated references to integrity, a prominent theme in his political thinking.

Though clearly unimpressed by the festering “partygate” scandal at Number 10, he believes the Government’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine has been the right one, supplying vital military aid to enable self-defence.

Tugendhat has nothing but praise for the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky.

“He came from nowhere and demonstrated courage, integrity and a record of service – in his case as a comedian, as an artist – serving his community and bringing people together,” said the married father-of-two.

“He united that country so that by the time the Russians came on February 24 the country was in a much stronger place.  That unity and integrity is fundamental.”

Asked why Ukraine matters to Cumbria, Tugendhat framed his answer through the lens of NATO, the military alliance designed to defend the western democracies that Putin so dislikes.

NATO’s job, he pointed out, is to protect our freedom, initially the democracies which were formerly Cold War Soviet satellites states.

“NATO makes sure Brits can live with security, so, for our interests, and the safety of people of our island - frankly for the safety of people in Cumbria - it’s absolutely fundamental we support our NATO allies and help Ukraine.”

He was scathing about Vladimir Putin’s decision to wage war.

“Even under his own terms,” said Tugendhat, “it’s a failure: two countries which were neutral for 70 or 80 years are now joining NATO – Sweden and Finland. That shows that, even on his own terms, his strategy is failing.”

The risk posed by Putin is significant, he said.

“I was an intelligence officer for a long time and most people are not very good liars. When Putin says something, I’m minded to believe him; and what he’s said is that he doesn’t believe Ukraine is a state.

“He believes he has the duty to ‘protect’ it – like a Mafia don protects a restaurant. This is a protection racket. He’s said he wants to protect Russian speakers in Lithuania, in Latvia, in Estonia.

“That’s a direct threat to NATO member states.”

Asked directly about his leadership ambitions, Tugendhat replied: “I’ve always made it absolutely clear that serving my country has been the biggest privilege of my life.

“I’ve served in uniform; I’ve served as a diplomat and I’ve now been lucky enough to have served as a member of Parliament and as chairman of a committee and if I could serve at another level, and at the highest level, then of course that would be an enormous privilege.

“I’ve never been shy about it.

“Frankly I’m not sure why others are coy about the enormous privilege it is to serve your country. It’s a huge privilege." Referring to the role of prime minister, he says: "It’s a hard job that need to be done well.

“I’m also a democrat, and fundamentally, as a democrat, you need to offer options and allow people to choose but not be bitter about the answer.”

So what makes a good PM?

“One of the overwhelming qualities President Zelensky has brought to Ukraine is that ability to unite and bring people together and prepare people for trials and struggles. All countries go through trials and struggles.”

He praised Zelensky's courage and integrity.

On domestic issues, Tugendhat described himself as a “low-tax Tory” and declared his opposition to Labour’s idea of windfall tax on the huge profits currently being enjoyed by major energy companies.

Would that not help those struggling with the cost-of-living crisis?

“If you’re a Brit with a pension plan,” said Tugendhat, who opposed the hike in national insurance, “you’ll have some of your money in those shares. So let’s not pretend that this is a tax on no one.

“This a tax on you. This is a tax on your pension.” Asked about his Afghanistan speech, he insists emotion in politics can be a force for good.

“We’re not just instruments of government; tools to be played with or numbers on a balance sheet. We’re people. The great privilege of being a junior officer, a member of Parliament, or a diplomat, is that you work with people.”

His military service - and the threats all active service personnel live with - showed him the need to be surrounded by people you can trust.

“I can tell you I know what fear is," he conceded. "I know what love of your friends is; and I know what service and duty are.

“And I really do know what trust is. I’ve trusted people from the Navy, the Air Force, and of course the Army. Emotion, harnessed, and controlled, is one of the things that humans bring to what would otherwise be cold and calculating decisions.

“And integrity matters. Many [politicians] have it. It matters because our communities deserve the best and we should be able to offer them the best.”

According to recent estimates, Tugendhat is currently second favourite (with odds of 9/1) in the running to replace Boris Johnson should his fellow Tories decide it is time to ditch the trouble prone PM. The current favourite is Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (given odds of 6/1 for the top job).

* Last week's local elections saw the Conservatives suffer significant losses as they shed almost 500 seats and control of 11 councils. The party lost out to the Liberal Democrats in southern England, and key London councils went to Labour.

In Cumbria, election night saw the Conservatives win just seven seats on the new Cumberland Council, covering Carlisle, Allerdale and Copeland. Labour took control with 30 seats winning over previous Conservative strongholds like Yewdale.

John Stevenson said he has no doubt that "partygate" played a part in his party's disappointing results. The Metropolitan Police this week issued a fresh batch of covid rule-breach fines to Downing Street staff.

The address has now amassed more than 100 covid fines - more than any other single workplace in the country, according to some commentators.

Asked about the issue by The Cumberland News, Boris Johnson declined to comment until senior civil servant Sue Gray has published the final version of the report into her investigation of the rule-breaking in Downing Street.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson reacts to resignation of Tory city councillor over partygate