British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has survived a Conservative Party no confidence vote. His numerous critics probably weren’t happy that he managed to stave off this latest challenge. But one group of people was thrilled: Ukrainians.
And it’s hard to blame them. Ukraine, engaged in an existential fight for its survival as an independent nation, rightly views Johnson as one of its most reliable friends in the West. While French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have spent countless hours trying to reason with Vladimir Putin, Johnson was the first leader of a major Western power to visit Kyiv, a gesture that bought an enormous amount of goodwill for Britain among the Ukrainian public. In a recent poll, Johnson scored a net favorability ranking of almost 50 points among the Ukrainians, second only to President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Zelensky himself, by the way, echoed those sentiments when he heard the news of Johnson’s Monday victory: “I’m glad we haven’t lost an important ally, this is great news.”)
That alliance goes beyond imagery. Johnson might have a reputation for being flaky, but British-supplied Javelin and NLAW missiles were essential in derailing early Russian incursions into Ukraine. By European standards, British military aid stands out; in May, Johnson pledged an additional $1.6 billion in assistance to the Ukrainians, almost doubling Britain’s previous commitments. Most recently, the British government announced that it would provide Ukraine with M270 precision-guided rocket launchers, which can strike targets up to 50 miles away.
Britain has also imposed significant sanctions on trade with Russia, excluded main Russian banks from the British financial markets and frozen their assets, and placed restrictions on the access of Russian firms and individuals to financial services in Britain. After decades in which the British accommodated Russian kleptocrats, Johnson’s government has now sanctioned more than 1,000 persons and businesses with ties to the Russian government, including high-profile oligarchs.
To be sure, the credit goes not only to Johnson. At a time when many leaders around the world preferred to ignore Russia’s aggressive tendencies, both Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace were ringing the alarm bells — and they have remained stalwart supporters of Ukraine since. Even the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, has called Putin a “war criminal,” while Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, has said that the Russian dictator “deserved absolute defeat.”
The humiliating result of Monday’s vote, in which 4 out 10 Tory parliamentarians voted against their leader, opens the door to further leadership challenges or perhaps to an early election. In December 2018, Theresa May weathered a confidence vote with 117 of 317 Conservative MPs voting against her. Yet the outcome was seen as a dramatic blow to her authority, leading to her resignation in a matter of months.
Can the current unity on Ukraine be preserved if the Conservatives go through the same cycle again? There are Putin appeasers on fringes of both parties, though far more in Labour than among Conservatives. Supporters of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn continued shilling for Russia right up until the invasion, regurgitating the tired lies spread by Russian propaganda. And they weren’t the only ones. In 2016, a Conservative MP from Shropshire named Daniel Kawczynski bemoaned what he called the “anti-Russian hysteria” in British politics.
The problem is not simply extremist voices in both parties. As energy prices continue to rise and as the war descends into grinding, World War I-style static warfare in the trenches of eastern Ukraine, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain the current political momentum in favor of Kyiv.
The question of Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, particularly with regard to the Irish border question, continues to act both as an irritant and a distraction from deeper strategic questions. Infighting among the Tories could lead to a full-fledged trade war with the E.U., which could undercut efforts by Britain and its European partners to maintain their shared resolve to push back against Russia.
Johnson’s political future is uncertain — and to a large extent deservedly so. Yet his unequivocal support for Ukraine and the commitment of his government to Eastern European security are two of his legacies that are worth preserving.