Boris evokes his hero in speech to Ukrainian Parliament

By Paul Kelly

Perhaps it would be a little churlish, for obvious reasons, to say that Boris Johnson probably envies Volodymyr Zelensky right now, but I am sure that there is a part of him that does.

“War”, Antonio Guterress, Secretary General of the United Nations, said recently, ”is an absurdity in the twenty first century.” But there can be no doubt that it garners a lot of attention.

So the stoic defence of the Ukrainian people, characterized and generated in no small part by the unfortunate nation’s dynamic President, has attracted the positive support of most western governments and made Volodymyr Zelensky the darling of the free world. Especially when he is contrasted with the cold and ruthless evil of Putin and his cronies.

For Boris Johnson, Volodomyr Zelensky embodies everything he believes about leadership. Zelensky is heroic, popular, resolute, and fearless, in much the same mode as Boris’s great role model, Winston Churchill.  Indeed, it seems clear that these are all virtues that Johnson profoundly wishes the British people felt he himself possessed and which he so obviously and innately believes that he does. All that has been lacking is the proper stage and the challenging circumstances to prove it to us all.

Thankfully we ourselves are not directly at war, but Boris has been active in leading the charge in the free world and providing material support for the Ukrainian war effort. Today he announced in a speech to the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, another 300 million pounds worth of military aid. He also evoked Churchill by telling the Ukrainian people that this is ”their finest hour”  as his hero once did when addressing the House of Commons in 1940, when Britain too faced an existential crisis of its own. He emphasised the strong parallel as he sees it between the current situation in Ukraine and Britain’s life and death struggle against, what appeared to be, the overwhelming forces of a profoundly evil Nazi Germany. Johnson declared “This is Ukraine’s finest hour, an epic chapter in your nation’s story that will be remembered for generations to come”.  He also drew other direct comparisons between Britain then and the Ukraine now in his speech, including the fact that both parliaments carried on meeting in their respective houses during wartime.

There can be little argument that when it comes to political leadership, Churchill has become an international super brand. Boris Johnson himself tried to explain this global appeal in a biography of the great war leader that he published in 2014 called “The Churchill Factor”. Although it was much lampooned at the time as really being a proxy biography of himself, the admiration that Johnson has for his vaunted predecessor is undimmed and uncritical. In one revealing and typical passage he states, “Churchill is the resounding human rebuttal to all who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces.”

Some have suggested that the invitation to speak to the Ukrainian Parliament and to credibly evoke Churchill could not have come at a better time for “lucky” Boris. After all, opinion polls and other on the ground research, conducted just before the local elections in England and Wales, has suggested that the Great British public has not forgotten or forgiven “Partygate”. Boris will be hoping that the reflected glory he will get from his address to the heroic people of Ukraine will help eclipse any negative views stirred up by whether he had a glass or two of champagne at his own birthday party and possibly broadcast the odd fib or so in the House.

According to a more detailed biography of Winston, written by that great parliamentarian, Sir Roy Jenkins (subsequently Lord Jenkins), Churchill had many personal and sometimes dangerous political flaws. But Jenkins argues no one really remembers those in the bright light of his war leadership. This is possibly the principle reason why Boris models himself so closely on possibly the most famous Prime Minister in British history and if he has not got the same stage to hand, he can always borrow something like it and use the same words.