Did Boris Johnson compare Ukraine to Brexit? Full transcript of Prime Minister’s remarks, and speech reaction

Labour has called on the Prime Minister to apologise for his comments

Boris Johnson has been accused of making “utterly distasteful” remarks after appearing to compare the deadly conflict in Ukraine and the Brexit vote.

Labour has called on the Prime Minister to apologise for his comments, while some Tory backbenchers have also criticised his speech.

However, several Cabinet ministers have defended Mr Johnson’s comments, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak saying he was not making a direct link between the two events.

Here we take a look at what the Prime Minister said about Ukraine and Brexit, and the reaction to his speech.

What did Boris Johnson say about Ukraine and Brexit?

During the Conservative Party spring conference in Blackpool on Saturday (19 March), Mr Johnson was speaking about the conflict in Ukraine and why Vladimir Putin’s invasion needed to fail.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves the stage after speaking at the Conservative Party Spring Forum at Winter Gardens, Blackpool (PA)

He said: “I know that it’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom every time.

“I can give you a couple of famous recent examples.

“When the British people voted for Brexit in such 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 other example the Prime Minister gave was the British people’s willingness to voluntarily get vaccinated against Covid.

He said people did this because they “wanted to get on with their lives” and “were fed up with being told what to do by people like me”.

Who has defended Boris Johnson’s comments?

Mr Sunak defended the comments, saying that he did not think Mr Johnson had been suggesting that the Russian invasion in Ukraine and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union were “analogous”.

He told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “No, I don’t think those two situations are directly analogous.

“Clearly they are not directly analogous and I don’t think the Prime Minister was saying that they were directly analogous either.”

Mr Sunak added: “People will draw their own conclusions. People can make up their own minds.”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid also defended the Prime Minister, saying he was not “at all” comparing the two issues.

Mr Javid told Sky News: “I don’t think in any way he was connecting the situations in Ukraine and the UK, and if we want to know what the Prime Minister thinks about Ukraine and responding, I mean, we can see for ourselves in terms of the support that he’s provided, rock-solid support compared to any other world leader.”

He added: “I think it’s spurious to say that he was connecting, somehow, the UK and Ukraine in that way.

“I think most normal people listening to that wouldn’t have drawn that conclusion.”

Who has criticised Boris Johnson’s comments?

However, Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves called the comments “insulting”.

She told Sky News: “It is utterly distasteful and insulting to compare the fight for freedom and the aggression of the Russian state to the decision to leave the European Union.

“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.

“If the Prime Minister didn’t mean that analogy, he shouldn’t have made it and he should take back those words and apologise to the Ukrainian people and the British people for those crass remarks he made yesterday.”

Donald Tusk, the former European Council president, said his words “offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense”.

Tory peer Lord Barwell said voting in the 2016 referendum “isn’t in any way comparable with risking your life” in a war with Russia.

The former chief of staff in Number 10, who served in Theresa May’s government, also pointed out that Ukraine is seeking to join the European Union.

Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said the comparison “damages the standard of statecraft” being exhibited in the response to the invasion.

In a Twitter post, which was retweeted by France’s ambassador to the UK Catherine Colonna, he said: “If we are to ultimately defeat Putin we require international leadership and unity.

“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.”

Support people fleeing the devastating conflict in Ukraine: donate to the DEC appeal

Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) charities and their local partners are in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries providing food, water, shelter and medical assistance. Learn more and donate what you can today

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