There is no doubt that Boris Johnson and his meticulously tutored team of ministers talk a great fight. Despite being on the ropes over the partygate scandal, they have again squirmed free and landed a counter punch with their flurry of activity over the war in Ukraine, all the while signalling to the crowd that they’re still ahead on points. On a BBC Question Time, war in Ukraine “special,” as education secretary Nadhim Zahawi began answering a question on the refugee crisis by stating that Russia sees the UK as leading the coordination effort against it.

But his words were met with a straight knockdown by former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She said Zahawi’s words almost made her laugh and added: “You said that Putin will think that the UK is leading the efforts against Russia right now – of course it’s not, the European Union is leading the effort against Russia, so I don’t think they’ll see Boris Johnson as a particular leader in this field, so set that straight.”

Since Russia’s invasion and brutal war against its neighbour started, the UK has largely been seen to be playing catch up in its actual, rather than acted, response. Firstly, while other nations acted swiftly, Britain was slow and gradual in its imposition of sanctions against Russian banks in this country and the billionaire oligarchs living here, prompting accusations that many were allowed time to shift their billions and their luxury yachts to safer waters.

But the biggest criticism has come in the response to the refugee crisis, as millions, mostly women and children, fled the Russian onslaught. By the time Poland had taken more than a million refugees across its border, the UK was said to have accepted a total of 53. In the early days of the war, Home Secretary Priti Patel told the Commons that a visa application centre had been set up in Calais.

It was untrue: there were no visas being handed out and hundreds of Ukrainians who had trekked a thousand miles were told they must go back to Paris, Brussels or Lille. And while hundreds of thousands of refugees were accepted – visa free – into countries across Europe, the UK was drawing up a complex process in which desperate Ukrainians had to create an online account and upload various documents before even being even being granted an interview, while fleeing the bombs and shells and frequently having nothing more than the clothes they stood up in. 

The UK has endured massive criticism from its European neighbours for its inaction. To be fair to the government, policy has shifted and is improving, with funded sponsorship schemes now announced and the Prime Minister claiming that up to 200,000 Ukrainian will eventually be accepted here. The UK has also been providing considerable quantities of what it calls “defensive” weapons to Ukrainian fighters. Whether or not this, and perhaps more to come, makes the UK a leader in the battle against Putin remains, at very least, a moot point.


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