Boris Johnson refuses to retract claim that Ukraine’s fight against Russia is like Brexit vote

Any prospect of prime minister being invited to this week’s EU summit appears to have vanished – but Joe Biden will be there

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 21 March 2022 13:52 GMT
Boris Johnson compares Ukraine conflict to Brexit in party conference speech

Boris Johnson has refused to withdraw his incendiary claim that Ukraine’s fight for survival against Russia is like the Brexit vote – and insisted Kyiv is not offended.

The prime minister was reported to be regretting making the comparison – made in his weekend Tory conference speech – after it was branded “insulting” to the Ukrainian people and “insane”.

But his spokesman made clear he was not having “second thoughts”, arguing it is legitimate to categorise both struggles as a “desire for freedom”.

The spokesman added: “It’s worth noting that the Ukrainian ambassador was in the audience at the time. He gave a standing ovation at the end of the speech and tweeted his thanks.”

It now appears certain that Mr Johnson will not be invited to the European Council summit in Brussels at the end of the week, which had seemed possible before his weekend remarks.

No 10 had indicated he would accept an invitation – but he will now be the only major Western leader shut out of the room when the visiting Joe Biden joins the discussion about the Ukraine crisis.

Speaking in Blackpool on Saturday, Mr Johnson drew a direct link between the war and Brexit, telling the Tory faithful: “It’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom, every time.

“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.”

The comments provoked astonishment, not least because Ukraine’s response to Russia’s aggression has been to seek the EU membership, although that is some way off.

Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow chancellor, demanded an apology, saying: “It is insulting to the Ukrainian people, who are fighting for their very freedom and their very lives, and it is insulting to the British people as well.”

Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium who led the European parliament in the Brexit talks, described the comparison as “insane”.

“Brexit was about undoing freedoms and leaving the EU,” he said. “Ukrainians want more freedom and to join the EU.”

The prime minister’s spokesman claimed he had not made “a direct comparison” between the fighting in Ukraine and leaving the EU, although his comments suggested he did.

And he defended the speech, saying: “He was making observations about people’s desire for freedom and saying that’s what he believes those who voted for Brexit were voting for.”

Asked if Mr Johnson was having ‘second thoughts”, he replied: “No. I think those who read the speech in full can see he was talking about the desire for freedom and that’s what these people voted for.”

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