Boris Johnson and Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas meet NATO troops after a joint press conference at the Tapa Army Base on March 1, 2022. Picture Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Boris did good

Nobody would want to be PM at a time like this


This sketch is nothing if not critical of Boris Johnson. He is a man unfit to lead at every level, with no moral compass or obvious interest beyond his own gratification, who doesn’t so much lie as just say the easiest thing that comes to mind without a single thought as to whether it is true. A cad, a charlatan, a wrong ’un, he deserves to be horsewhipped. A lot.

So it is only fair to acknowledge that, on Tuesday afternoon in Poland, he did a decent thing, and gave a straight answer to a hard question.

There is an idea floating around that the war in Ukraine is showing us a new side of the prime minister. The problem with this suggestion is that it is hard to see how what Johnson is doing is very different from what any of his predecessors would have done in similar circumstances. Perhaps they might have been more reluctant to send weapons. Some might have taken different views about refugees. But the speed and severity with which so many democratic governments have responded to Russia’s attack on Ukraine shows how very few options Vladimir Putin has left any leaders.

Johnson visited Warsaw on Tuesday to fly the flag for freedom. He made a speech that was fine, and then took a couple of questions.

At times like this you wonder why anyone would want to be prime minister

Different prime ministers have had different attitudes to press questions. Tony Blair gave monthly press conferences that went on until no one could bear to ask any more. Gordon Brown felt obliged to carry this on, as did David Cameron until February 2011’s which he postponed in order to take a trip to the Middle East. We’re still waiting for it to be rescheduled, and I’m beginning to wonder if it will happen. For a decade after that, if you wanted to ask a prime minister a question and you weren’t a broadcast journalist, you had to go on a foreign trip, which usually offered a half-hour quick-fire huddle on the plane.

And, apart from the interruption forced on us by Covid, that situation has persisted. Johnson doesn’t have much time for journalists, possibly because he thinks they’re all like he used to be. But on Tuesday, as he reached the end of the three questions he’d been told to take, a woman interrupted. “You can certainly ask a question from Ukraine,” he replied. She’d been told she couldn’t. “You can definitely have a question as far as I’m concerned,” the prime minister replied.

Her name was Daria Kaleniuk, she was director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kiev. It wasn’t, as people say in other, less desperate circumstances, so much a question as a comment. Or indeed a speech. “I passed the border a couple of days ago,” she began. “Most of my family, most of my team members, are still in Ukraine.”

Johnson nodded, sympathetic. “You are talking about the stoicism of Ukrainian people,” she continued. “But Ukrainian women and Ukrainian children are in deep fear because of bombs and missiles which are going from the sky. And Ukrainian people are desperately asking for the west to protect our sky. We are asking for the no-fly zone. You are saying in response that it will trigger world war three. But what is the alternative, Mr Prime Minister?”

What indeed? Mr Prime Minister looked like he had the weight of the world on him. Kaleniuk’s voice was breaking now but she had more, much more to say. Johnson was afraid, she said. NATO was afraid. Ukrainian children were being killed. Why hadn’t Roman Abramovich been sanctioned? Why hadn’t Putin’s European mansions been seized?

Ukrainian children will be bombed because there is nothing Britain or any other NATO country can do to stop it

At times like this you wonder why anyone would want to be prime minister. You certainly wondered if Johnson still wants the job. He was supposed to be the Merrie England leader, taking us all to endless sunlit uplands, and instead, here he was trudging through the valley of the shadow of nuclear war. And to his credit, there on he trudged. He didn’t really have much choice, live on camera, but he did it. Perhaps Kaleniuk’s frankness had left him nowhere to go, but the result was a frank answer, shorn of rhetoric.

“I am acutely conscious,” be began, “there is not enough we can do as the UK government to help in the way that you want. I’ve got to be honest about that.” A no-fly zone? “The implication of that is that the UK would be engaged in shooting down Russian planes, would be engaged in direct combat in Russia. That’s not something we can do.”

Ukrainian children will be bombed because there is nothing Britain or any other NATO country can do to stop it without risking making things a thousand times worse. Fate has pushed Johnson to a place where he has to announce that sometimes you don’t get to have cake or eat it. Sometimes all the options are terrible. “I’m sorry it’s going to take time,” he closed. “I’m sorry it’s going to be difficult and I’m sorry for all the tragedy and suffering that you’ve experienced. Thank you for coming and asking your question today.”

It was not the answer she wanted, but it was at least an honest answer. Not many of us can say we’ve had one of those from Boris Johnson, and he deserves a little credit for giving it.

Normal service is likely to be resumed tomorrow, on all sides.

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