Boris Johnson has sparked outrage by comparing the struggle of Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion to that of Britons voting for Brexit.
In his speech at the Tory spring conference in Blackpool, Johnson said it is the “instinct of the people of this country, like the people of the Ukraine, to choose freedom”, with the Brexit vote a “famous recent example”.
The comparison was criticized by Tory peer Lord Barwell, who noted that Ukraine is seeking to join the European Union.
Former European Council President Donald Tusk said the prime minister’s words “offend the Ukrainians, the British and common sense.”
There was also a reprimand from senior French diplomats, including the country’s ambassador to the UK.
In his speech, Johnson said: “I know that it is 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 Britons voted for Brexit in such large numbers, I don’t think it was because they were even remotely hostile to foreigners. It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to function on its own.”
The other example given by the prime minister was the willingness of the British people to voluntarily get vaccinated against Covid-19 because “they wanted to get on with their lives” and “they were fed up with people like me telling them what to do.”
Lord Barwell, who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff at Number 10, said voting in the 2016 referendum “is in no way comparable to risking one’s life” in a war with Vladimir Putin’s forces.
Writing on Twitter, he said: “Apart from the part where voting in a free and fair referendum is in no way comparable to risking your life to defend your country against invasion + the uncomfortable fact that Ukrainians are fighting for the freedom to join. the EU, this comparison is explosive”.
Tory Defense Select Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood said Johnson’s comparison “damages the standard of statecraft” exhibited in the response to the invasion.
In a Twitter comment, which was retweeted by France’s ambassador to the UK, Catherine Colonna, Ellwood said: “If we are going to finally defeat Putin, we need international leadership and unity.
“Comparing the Ukrainian people’s fight against Putin’s tyranny with the British people’s vote for Brexit damages the standard of statecraft that we were beginning to exhibit.”
Philippe Errera, political director of the French Foreign Ministry, said: “If I were Ukrainian, I would feel insulted. If I were British, I would feel ashamed. As a French diplomat, I will not comment on Twitter…”
Mrs. Colonna replied: “As the French ambassador to the UK, neither will I.”
Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who was leader of the European Council during the UK’s bitter exit process, said: “Boris Johnson compares the Ukrainians’ struggle to the British vote on Brexit.
“I can still remember the enthusiasm of Putin and Trump after the referendum. Boris, your words offend the Ukrainians, the British and common sense.”
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, another leading critic of Brexit in Brussels, called the comparison “crazy”.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said the prime minister “is a national disgrace”, adding: “Comparing a referendum to women and children fleeing Putin’s bombs is an insult to all Ukrainians.
“He is not Churchill. This is Basil Fawlty.”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “Boris Johnson’s comments comparing Ukraine’s life-threatening situation to Brexit were rude and disgusting, and show how dangerously obsessed the Tories are with Brexit.”