Up above, in the wings of the parliamentary press gallery which overlook the floor of the House of Commons, Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech was difficult to absorb as it happened. Live translation headsets were available to MPs but not to journalists. Instead we split headphones and listened on delay to the BBC, absorbing three sounds at once: Zelensky in the chamber, Zelensky on the broadcast, and a faint translation following in the wake of both.
Fragments heard at the time were made clearer after the fact. “The question for us now,” said Zelensky to a packed house of MPs, visiting peers, journalists, and guests, “is to be or not to be. This Shakespearean question. For 14 days this question could have been asked of Ukraine, but now I can give you a definitive answer: it is yes, to be.”
“And I would like to remind you of the words that the United Kingdom has already heard,” he continued, moving in a beat through three hundreds years of British history, from Shakespeare to Churchill, “words which are important once again – we will not give up and we will not lose. We will fight until the end, at sea and in the air. We will continue fighting for our land whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, and in the streets.”
As those words came through on delay to journalists, MPs – listening live, a paragraph ahead of us – rose as one. Three of us in the press gallery rose too, while many clapped, although journalists are not meant to react to debate. But precedent had little place. Never before has a foreign president addressed the chamber live from a bunker 1,300 miles away in the midst of war.
The Ukrainian ambassador to the UK looked on, back in his seat in the vistor’s gallery above and opposite Boris Johnson, who Zelensky personally thanked in his speech. It is hard now to remember the fervour of a month ago, when Tory MPs told me Johnson’s “funeral pyre” was “about to be lit”. That moment now appears to have long passed.
I spoke briefly with three notable Tory MPs as everyone flooded out of the chamber after brief statements from party leaders following Zelensky’s address. “Policy wise I think we’re in the right place,” said one shrewd Tory MP. “Does anyone want to fire a nuclear weapon on Russia? No. Does anyone want to engage directly with Russia? No. So short of that, I think we are doing everything we can.”
A senior government minister echoed that. “The Ukrainians think we are brilliant, because we gave them the weapons to defend themselves before it was fashionable, and we were really vocal on the sanctions that hurt. You can sanction loads of minnows if you want, or you can do the things that go right to the heart, and we did, from locking Russian businesses out of London’s financial markets, to pushing hard on Swift, to blocking air travel and shipping to the UK – there’s a reason we got singled out in [Vladimir] Putin’s rant the other day.”
The minister spoke optimistically of the pressure building on Putin and on the people around him. The government hopes that pressure will, in time, provoke a shift in Russian aims. But, the minister conceded, Putin’s “got to want a way out, and nothing he’s saying or doing right now gives us any indication that he does”.
I spoke with Penny Mordaunt, the trade minister, who backed the government’s decision to rule out direct military intervention in Ukraine. “People are clearly making difficult and finely balanced judgements,” she said, “and I don’t think we would have taken force off the table unless that was vital in terms of messaging to Russia.”
“We have to finish this on Ukrainian soil,” she said. To confine this conflict to Ukraine? “Yes. Not just [to avoid] a no fly zone, but [to avoid] any further action beyond providing military aid and support. it’s very difficult to watch what’s happening with people being shelled, but we just need to bear that in mind throughout this.”
Mordaunt offered her own bittersweet optimism. “I worked alongside Ukrainian forces in 2015. These guys are hard as nails. They’re not going to ever give up. And they’re putting up the most unbelievable fight.” But, she conceded bleakly: “Putin’s playbook is to fire on civilians, and we’re going to, I’m too sorry to say, see more of that.”
The House listened intently this afternoon to a man they eagerly want to support, a man they have helped more than many governments. And yet at the last, an air of impotence hung over the chamber: the UK and the West will arm Ukraine, but there is much they have decided they will not do. They have decided Ukraine must fight and survive alone.