For a few brief moments on Sunday 22 January it was as though Boris Johnson was the British prime minister again. He strode through central Kyiv, quilted jacket flapping, tie askew, to greet the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. As the waiting camera crew filmed, Johnson promised to be “a foot soldier, a spear carrier”, in the effort to help Ukraine. He assured Zelensky, “I will do whatever I can.”
Yet even as Johnson was playing the statesman in Kyiv he was enmeshed in fresh scandal at home, and the memories of how his inglorious reign ended last July came flooding back.
The specific allegations, this time, first reported by the Sunday Times, were that Richard Sharp, chairman of the BBC, had helped to arrange a guarantee on an £800,000 loan to the then prime minister in late 2020, shortly before Johnson recommended him for the role. (Sharp has denied that he played any part in the loan and asked the BBC board to review any potential conflicts of interest; Johnson has dismissed the allegations as “a load of complete nonsense”.) It was all so depressingly familiar. The Labour Party demanded an investigation. Letters had been submitted to the parliamentary commissioner for standards. A characteristically dishevelled Johnson had fended off questions from reporters on a London street, attempting to make light of the situation by saying Sharp knew nothing of his finances: “I can tell you that for 100 per cent ding dang sure.”
The magnet-like quality with which Johnson seems to attract scandal, however, is not the only reason why he should not be appointed “special envoy to Ukraine”, as the Spectator urged on 22 January. It is easy to see why he would want the job if it existed. It would propel him back into the limelight, allowing him to reinvent himself from disgraced former leader to valiant defender of democracy, channelling his personal idol, Winston Churchill. It is harder to see how this would benefit Ukraine.
It is true that Johnson is popular in Ukraine. It is right that he, along with Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, should get credit for their crucial support during the early months of the war. They set the pace for shipments of military aid among Ukraine’s Western partners, and they were unequivocal in their assessment of what was at stake and why it was essential to help Kyiv fight back. But the greatest challenge Ukraine faces now is in sustaining that support and holding together European partners whose tendency is to splinter into disarray. In other words, Ukraine needs a diplomat: a serious, well-respected figure who can shuttle between European capitals and build a coalition. That person is not Boris Johnson, a man who has devoted much of his career to fomenting euroscepticism and denigrating the European Union, the very institution that Ukraine is fighting for the freedom to be allowed to join. Johnson specialises in burning down bridges, not building them.
Neither is he well-respected in Washington, where his shambling, scandal-prone premiership won him few fans in the political mainstream. Joe Biden was distinctly unimpressed with Johnson’s cavalier approach to Northern Ireland in the post-Brexit trade negotiations and has cautioned against undermining the hard-won peace secured by the Good Friday Agreement. When Johnson finally, reluctantly resigned in July 2022 Politico summed up Biden’s response as: “OK, bye.”
Then there is Johnson’s constitutional unseriousness. Throughout his tenure he appeared to pride himself on never having a full grasp of the facts – the tedious details of policies that affected people’s lives were beneath him, they would only weigh down his oratory – he preferred to rely on great battles from Roman history and frequent tousling of the hair. He blustered his way through interviews as though it was all just a jolly jape and anyone who tried to hold him to account was a spoilsport. If there was a joke to be made (and often if there wasn’t), you could be 100 per cent ding dang sure he would make it.
This trademark approach was on display at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week where he confidently assured a panel on Ukraine that Vladimir Putin was “not going to use nuclear weapons” and suggested the West should call his bluff. While the consensus among security analysts is that the current risk of the Russian president resorting to nuclear weapons is low, few share Johnson’s certainty that we can categorically rule it out. Would it really help Ukraine to have a showboating British envoy weighing into serious discussions on nuclear deterrence in the months ahead?
Finally, there is the question of whether Johnson is even really all that popular in the UK, where he would presumably be expected to drum up support for continued military and economic aid to Ukraine. In fact, the New Statesman’s polling expert Ben Walker points out that despite the landslide Tory election victory in 2019, Johnson was never particularly popular as prime minister, he was just less unpopular than Jeremy Corbyn, his primary opponent at the time. While he is popular with a vocal core of the Tory base, that support is narrow. Overall, 65 per cent of voters said they had an unfavourable opinion of him in October 2022. Ukraine would surely be better served by a champion that the British public actually respects.
The idea of appointing a special envoy to Ukraine is worth pursuing. If Labour wins the next election Keir Starmer should ask Ben Wallace to stay on in this role to demonstrate that British support for Ukraine goes beyond the party in power. Catherine Ashton, the Labour peer who was the EU’s first high representative for foreign affairs and security (and recent World Review podcast guest), has a depth of experience in European politics and international crises that could be invaluable to Ukraine. George Robertson, the former Nato secretary-general, would be a worthy choice. As would Barbara Woodward, an accomplished and formidable diplomat who serves as the British ambassador to the United Nations and was previously based in China. Ukraine deserves better than Boris Johnson. There are far more capable, better respected and less scandal-prone figures who would do a superior job. If Johnson really wants to help, perhaps he could donate the advance from his forthcoming memoir.