Outrage as Boris compares Ukraine's fight for freedom to Brits voting for Brexit

19 March 2022, 16:29 | Updated: 20 March 2022, 07:46

Boris Johnson speaking at the Tory party spring conference in Blackpool, where he compared the struggle of Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion to Brits voting for Brexit.
Boris Johnson speaking at the Tory party spring conference in Blackpool, where he compared the struggle of Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion to Brits voting for Brexit. Picture: Alamy

By Sophie Barnett

Boris Johnson has sparked outrage by comparing the struggle of Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion to Brits voting for Brexit and resisting 'wokeness' in his keynote Tory conference speech.

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The Prime Minister has faced criticism for his comments made during the spring conference in Blackpool, where he claimed it is the "instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom".

Speaking in front of the Ukrainian ambassador, Mr Johnson referenced a couple of famous examples, including Brexit and Covid.

"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. 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 given by Mr Johnson was the British people's willingness to voluntarily get vaccinated against Covid-19 because they "wanted to get on with their lives" and "were fed up with being told what to do by people like me".

He went on to say: "We don't need to be woke. We just want to be free, and that's why talented people are fleeing Russia quite frankly right now."

Read more: Putin could use Ukrainian women to 'infiltrate' UK to launch terror attack, Home Sec says

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Mr Johnson was widely criticised for his remarks, with Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey calling him a "national embarrassment".

"To compare a referendum to women and children fleeing (Vladimir) Putin's bombs is an insult to every Ukrainian," he said.

"He is no Churchill: he is Basil Fawlty."

Former European Council president Donald Tusk said the Prime Minister’s words “offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense”.

There was also a rebuke from senior French diplomats, including the country’s ambassador in the UK.

Meanwhile, Lord Barwell, who served as Theresa May's chief of staff in Number 10, said voting in the 2016 referendum "isn't in any way comparable with risking your life" in a war.

He wrote on Twitter: "Apart from the bit where voting in a free and fair referendum isn't in any way comparable with risking your life to defend your country against invasion + the awkward fact the Ukrainians are fighting for the freedom to join the EU, this comparison is bang on."

Read more: Russia likely to step up attacks on civilians in Ukraine, Ministry of Defence warns

During his speech, Mr Johnson lashed out at Vladimir Putin, saying he is "panicking" about a revolution unfolding in Russia.

He also praised the heroic actions of the Ukrainians in defending their homeland and fighting for democracy.

Mr Johnson claimed the Russian dictator invaded Ukraine because he is terrified of a free, democratic country on his borders, warning that the West must take "bold steps" to wean off Moscow's fuel supplies.

He warned that Putin "must fail" or he will usher in a "new age of intimidation".

"With every year that Ukraine progressed - not always easily - towards freedom and democracy and open markets, he feared the Ukrainian example and he feared the implicit reproach to himself," Mr Johnson said.

"Because in Putin's Russia you get jailed for 15 years just for calling an invasion an invasion, and if you stand against Putin in an election you get poisoned or shot.

"It's precisely because Ukraine and Russia have been so historically close that he has been terrified of the effect of that Ukrainian model on him and on Russia."

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel defended the decision not to drop security checks on Ukrainian migrants, claiming Putin might try to use women and children to infiltrate the UK.

She said the British people "will open our homes and our hearts to Ukrainians" but security could not be compromised.