Chancellor defends PM amid criticism of Ukraine war and Brexit comparison

Labour said the remarks were ‘insulting’ and called for Boris Johnson to apologise.

20 March 2022

The Chancellor has sought to defend the Prime Minister after he was accused of making “utterly distasteful” remarks in appearing to link the Ukraine conflict and the Brexit vote.

Rishi Sunak said he did not think Boris Johnson had been suggesting the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the fight against Russia’s invasion in Ukraine were “analogous”, following comments the Prime Minister made at the Conservative Party spring conference on Saturday.

Mr Johnson said in Blackpool that it was the “instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom”, with the Brexit vote a “famous recent example”.

The remark has been criticised, including by some in the Tory ranks, while Labour has called on Mr Johnson to apologise to both Ukrainians and Britons.

But the Chancellor said he felt the Prime Minister was not making a direct link between the two events.

Speaking to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Mr Sunak said: “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.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said Brexit and the Ukraine conflict were not 'analogous'
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said Brexit and the Ukraine conflict were not ‘analogous’ (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Offering a defence of Mr Johnson, the Cabinet minister said there had been “no doubt” about the part the Prime Minister had played on the international stage in responding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

“He has taken a lead internationally in assembling a coalition of countries to inflict maximum economic pain on Putin and has galvanised opinion and I think he deserves enormous credit for that,” he added.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon also looked to play down the comparison, telling BBC Breakfast: “I don’t think it is as big a deal as some people are making out.

“The way I see it is the Prime Minister was saying we’re a vibrant democracy; we’re such a vibrant democracy, we’ve had a referendum. Ukraine wants to be a vibrant democracy and the Russians are trying to stop that,” the Commons Education Committee chairman said.

But Labour’s Rachel Reeves said linking the war in eastern Europe to the 2016 referendum was “insulting”.

The shadow chancellor told Sophy Ridge: “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.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the PM should apologise for his comments at the Tory Party spring conference
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the PM should apologise for his comments at the Tory Party spring conference (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

“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.”

Ms Reeves was also critical of Mr Johnson’s suggestion to Tory activists that Labour would wave the “white flag” to Moscow if the opposition party was in power.

The shadow cabinet member called his apparent insinuation “absolutely ridiculous”.

“This was a Prime Minister who on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine was wining and dining people with close links to Putin’s regime,” she told Sky News.

“This is a Prime Minister who overruled the security service in giving a peerage to now Lord Lebedev of Siberia. So, I’ll take no lectures from this Prime Minister.”

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