Once again Boris Johnson’s ministers are forced to defend the indefensible. Over the past two days Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, have both had to deny on air that the Prime Minister likened Britons voting for Brexit to Ukrainians battling Russian tyranny.
But that is exactly what Johnson did. And it was not some off-the-cuff observation. The crass, almost obscene, comparison came in a major set-piece speech to the Conservative Party’s spring conference on Saturday (19 March). The words are there in black and white on the party’s website.
“It’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom, every time,” Johnson declared. “I can give you a couple of famous recent examples. When the British people voted for Brexit, in such large, large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners. It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself.”
It was a deliberate and shameful bit of populism designed to fire up the party faithful. An unnamed government insider has had the decency to acknowledge that “it sounded better written down than it did when spoken”, according to the Times, but Johnson has not had the decency to apologise for a speech that was deeply insulting on many scores.
It was offensive to millions of brave Ukrainians. Johnson was essentially comparing their courageous resistance against Russia’s military might, their life-and-death struggle against an enemy that is bombing their hospitals and schools and destroying their cities, to Britons voting to leave the European Union in a peaceful democratic referendum.
It was offensive to the EU at a time when maintaining Western unity against Russia’s unprovoked aggression should be of paramount importance. Johnson was essentially likening Britain’s entirely voluntary membership of the EU to Ukraine’s violent invasion by Russia. That is grotesque. The EU was created for the express purpose of preventing future wars in Europe. Ukraine sees the bloc as a champion of liberty and is desperate to join it. Vladimir Putin was thrilled by Brexit because it weakened a union whose values are the antithesis of everything he stands for.
The speech was deeply offensive to Britain’s Remainers, reopening old wounds at a time when the Prime Minister should be doing all in his power to rally and unite the country ahead of the severe economic hardships it will soon be suffering. Johnson was implying that the 16 million citizens who voted to stay in the EU were unpatriotic, and preferred Brussels’ supposedly oppressive rule to national independence. Most Remainers would regard Brexit as a triumph not for freedom, but for lies and empty promises that subverted true democracy. For them Brexit represents a loss of freedom — the right to trade freely with the rest of Europe, for example, or the right to live, work and study anywhere in the EU.
Johnson’s speech was also deeply offensive to Labour when the opposition has chosen broadly to support the government at a time of national and international crisis. In a less-noticed passage, Johnson accused Keir Starmer and his colleagues of being hostile to Nato and “running up the white flag” in the face of Putin’s aggression.
In one other way Johnson’s speech stuck in the proverbial craw. He used it to extol “freedom”, but delivered it at the end of a week in which he had gone begging for oil from two of the world’s nastier despots.
One was Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who, according to US intelligence, ordered the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and presided over 81 executions on a single day just before Johnson’s arrival. The other was Mohamed bin Zayed, the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, who saw fit to receive the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad two days after Johnson’s visit. The Prime Minister managed to confer a degree of respectability on both MBS and MBZ but returned home empty-handed. Small wonder he stopped the usual prime ministerial press corps from accompanying him.
Wars bring out the best and worst in people. This one has plenty of heroes — the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s resistance fighters, the Russian astronauts who dressed in Ukrainian colours, the Russian television producer Marina Ovsyannikova who risked all with her on-air anti-war protest, and many more besides. It also has its parasites, those who seek to exploit the war for their own ends. Matt Hancock’s offer to house a Ukrainian refugee family would have been so much more impressive had he not broadcast it. Ditto the delivery of relief supplies to Poland by David Cameron — another politician eager for political rehabilitation.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Priti Patel had the gall to assert that “the UK has always been a place of sanctuary which stands for freedom and democracy, and against barbarism and tyranny. With the people of Ukraine, we are proving so again.” That from a Home Secretary who has made it harder for desperate Ukrainian refugees to reach this country than for Pen Farthing’s Afghan dogs to do so.
Then there was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s outrageous claim last week that the war has shown “partygate” to be mere “fluff”. How strange that a man who places such apparent store on parliament’s sovereignty should exonerate a Prime Minister who repeatedly lied to the Commons about No 10’s lockdown parties, and probably owes his survival to Russia’s invasion.
Johnson himself has, in fairness, shown some signs of statesmanship. He ordered the delivery of weapons to Ukraine before any other country. He was instrumental in securing some of the West’s harshest economic sanctions against Russia. He had even presided over something of a rapprochement with the EU before his disastrous weekend speech.
Yet what is it about our Prime Minister? Why does he constantly shame his country? Why does he constantly seek to divide it? This latest gaffe, this latest gratuitously offensive outburst, will soon be forgotten like so many others, but it won’t be his last. However many times Johnson changes his advisers, however many times we’re assured that grown-ups are now in charge at No 10, they simply cannot suppress the mean and nasty character of the man.