Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been engulfed by a tide of criticism at home and across Europe after he compared Ukraine’s fight for “freedom” to Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor, on Sunday attempted to defend the prime minister, insisting that the two issues were “not directly analogous” and that Johnson had not intended to make a straight comparison.
But other senior Tories distanced themselves from Johnson’s comments at the Conservative party spring conference in Blackpool, while leading European politicians condemned them.
Johnson said on Saturday it was the “instinct” of the British people, “like the people of Ukraine”, to “choose freedom”, citing recent events such as the 2016 EU referendum and the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
“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,” he said. “It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself.”
Asked on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme on whether he believed the comments were “crass”, Sunak said Johnson “has taken a lead globally in standing up to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin”.
But Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said Johnson must apologise, adding that the remarks were “utterly distasteful and insulting” to both the Ukrainian and British public.
Johnson’s remarks are likely to reinforce the view held in some European capitals that the prime minister is a populist who is determined to keep scoring points against the EU, six years after the Brexit vote.
“This is truly disgraceful,” Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister, said on Twitter. “Despicable. Any thought of inviting this man to a summit should be shelved.”
Alexander Stubb, former prime minister of Finland, said comparing the EU referendum to Ukraine’s quest for freedom from Russian aggression was “about as vulgar as it gets”. He added: “Winston Churchill, who understood freedom, must be turning in his grave.”
Donald Tusk, the former European Council president, remarked on Twitter: “Boris, your words offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense.”
Johnson, who is in Brussels on Thursday for a Nato summit, has not been invited to attend an EU leaders’ summit on the same day, although US president Joe Biden will be a guest at the event.
“There could be leaders of other Nato countries who are not EU members wanting to come,” said one EU official. “We cannot invite them all.”
Downing Street had indicated that Johnson was open to attending his first EU summit since Brexit took effect.
The EU official added: “We could envisage a summit of the 27 plus the UK at some stage.” A spokesperson for Charles Michel, the European Council president, declined to comment.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chair of the defence select committee, was the first Tory MP to publicly criticise Johnson’s remarks. “Comparing the Ukrainian people’s fight against Putin’s tyranny to the British people voting for Brexit damages the standard of statecraft we were beginning to exhibit,” the MP for Bournemouth East wrote on Twitter.
Theresa Villiers, a pro-Brexit former cabinet minister, told the BBC’s Broadcasting House: “These are probably not words I would use myself.”
In recent weeks, icy relations between London and the EU have thawed, as both sides have worked together to co-ordinate sanctions against Russia, but Johnson’s remarks could represent a setback.
Liz Truss, foreign secretary, was this month invited to attend a meeting of the EU foreign affairs council, while Britain has rewritten its sanctions legislation to allow it to copy measures introduced by Brussels against those linked to the Putin regime.