Picture credit: UK parliament

Ya Ukrayinets

MPs see what resilient leadership looks like from the Churchill of Kyiv

“Due to the exceptional and grave situation,” the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, began, addressing a House of Commons that had overflowed. MPs were sitting in the aisles and in the seats reserved for officials. Some of them were in the public gallery.

They had gathered for a historic moment, the first time the Commons had been addressed by a foreign leader by video-link. It is not a slight on Ukraine’s president to wish that we lived in a time when we could go a few years between historic moments. At the moment they seem to come along every week.

The echo of a previous leader was deliberate, of course

It is also surely the first time the Commons has been addressed by someone in combat fatigues. We have all become familiar with the face of Volodymyr Zelensky in the last two weeks, but there was drama in being addressed directly from a bunker by a man who would be dead already if Vladimir Putin had anything to do with it.

Zelensky’s oratory wasn’t helped by the flat, hesitating nature of simultaneous translation, but it didn’t diminish the power of his words either. He took us, briefly, through the thirteen days of “this war that we didn’t start and we didn’t want”. As he described how his citizens in besieged cities had begun to panic, Boris Johnson looked at the floor. Next to him Liz Truss looked utterly horrified. It is one thing to read this stuff in intelligence reports, quite another to hear them directly. On the benches opposite, Keir Starmer looked equally appalled. Rachel Reeves seemed on the verge of tears.

“We will not give up and we will not lose,” Zelensky went on. “We will fight to the end, at sea, in the air, we will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”

The echo of a previous leader was deliberate, of course. Boris Johnson has gone to great pains over the last few years to suggest to us that he is Winston Churchill reborn. The reality is that few of us know how we would respond if our lives were in peril, but Zelensky does.

“We are looking for your help,” Zelensky said. “For the help of civilised countries. We are thankful for your help. I’m very grateful to you, Boris.”

He had been rewarded with a standing ovation before he even started, and he got another one as he finished. He acknowledged it with a raised fist, and then disappeared. It was left to the party leaders to try to follow him.

Johnson was brief. “I believe he has moved the hearts of everybody in this House,” he said, and it was hard to argue with that.

He will deserve to stand in rather better company than that of Sir Gavin Williamson

The prime minister decided to channel a different leader: “Today one of the proudest boasts in the free world is ‘Ya Ukrayinets’ – ‘I am a Ukrainian’.” He pledged further sustained action against Putin. Near him on the front bench Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, looked very thoughtful, hand in chin. The former soldier may have a better sense than many of how nasty the fight for Ukraine could become.

It was left to Ed Davey of the Liberal Democrats to lower the tone, suggesting that Zelensky should be given an honorary knighthood.

Let us pray that one day soon Ukraine’s president will be able to visit Britain having seen off the Russian invader. If he does, he will deserve to stand in rather better company than that of Sir Gavin Williamson.

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