Will the end of Boris Johnson’s tenure as the UK’s prime minister significantly impact Britain’s commitment to help Ukraine fight off Russia?
Probably not, believe experts and UK officials who spoke to the Kyiv Independent. They pointed out that, with few exceptions, there’s a cross-party consensus that the UK should continue to support Ukraine militarily, politically and economically.
Moreover, many of Johnson’s possible successors have consistently warned about the dangers of Russia and the importance of helping Ukraine.
“In policy terms, I don’t think this will make a dramatic difference to the UK’s policy towards Ukraine,” said Ian Bond, the director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform. “I don’t see anyone among the leading candidates who can be regarded as having problematic views on Russia.”
He added that while there are lawmakers with “dangerous” views on Russia, either due to business interests or personal connections, they are nowhere close to power.
“I am confident that the UK will continue strongly to support Ukraine, whoever leads the UK government,” Robert Brinkley, the former UK ambassador to Ukraine, told the Kyiv Independent.
Roger Gale, a lawmaker with the Conservative Party, echoed this sentiment in a brief comment, saying his colleagues recognize the importance of continued support for Ukraine.
Oleksandr Kraev, an expert with Ukrainian think tank Prism UA, believes that Johnson’s departure may put the brakes on the number of Ukraine-related initiatives that Johnson kept rolling out. However, he believes that existing initiatives, which crucially include military aid, will continue.
Johnson resigned as the leader of the Conservative Party on July 7, brought down by the numerous scandals he and his party racked up during his three years in office. The Prime Minister was defiant practically until the last moment, even as dozens of government members resigned en masse, urging him to step down.
He revealed his intention to stay in his office as “caretaker” until the fall. This is not palatable to many lawmakers and members of the public. The prime minister may last anywhere between a few more weeks to a few more months, according to Bond.
Johnson cuts a massively controversial figure back home, where he careened from one outrage and embarrassment to another.
Revelations recently came to light that Chris Pincher, the Tory deputy chief whip, faced multiple sexual assault allegations spanning years, at least one of which Johnson knew about before appointing him. Pincher’s scandal began unraveling in a private London club, where he reportedly got drunk and groped two men.
This wasn’t the only sex scandal. Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan resigned after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Another lawmaker was arrested for rape and sexual assault, Reuters reported; his identity hasn’t been revealed. Tory Lawmaker Neil Parish resigned after he admitted to watching porn on his phone in the house of commons.
One of Johnson’s most infamous episodes was when he violated the UK’s strict Covid-19 quarantine measures to party it up at Downing Street. A series of boozy lockdown parties have been reported by a civil servant. Johnson previously denied awareness and said he didn’t know these parties broke the law.
Then, there was Conservative lawmaker Owen Paterson. The standards committee recommended suspending him for 30 days after his paid advocacy work came to light. The Tories reportedly tried to halt the suspension at first.
All this, on top of high inflation and concerns about taxes raised questions about Johnson’s leadership that could no longer be ignored.
However, Johnson, who was made an “honorary Cossack” in Ukraine last month and the honorary citizen of Odesa a week ago, is one of Ukraine’s most beloved foreign politicians.
His fiery support of Ukraine, visits to Kyiv, and his taking the lead on sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, won him many fans among the government and the public. President Volodymyr Zelensky had called Johnson “our country’s great friend.”
When the resignation came to light, Zelensky thanked Johnson in a phone call, saying “We all heard this news with sadness. Not only me, but also the entire Ukrainian society, which is very sympathetic to you. My entire office and all Ukrainians are grateful to you for your help. We have no doubt that Great Britain’s support will be preserved, but your personal leadership and charisma made it special.”
The Kremlin, of course, had an opposite and gleeful reaction.
“He doesn’t like us, we don’t like him either,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Others called Johnson a clown, such as Russian oligarch Oleh Deripaska and lower house speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. Multiple Russian officials bid Johnson good riddance for messing with Russia.
The resignation raised concerns among Ukrainians, who were unwilling to lose their most effusive supporter.
“In the last two days, this was a question on everyone’s mind on social media — will (Johnson’s resignation) affect support?” said Kraev. “It was not fear but a light alarm. Ukrainians didn’t have a hostile reaction to Johnson’s removal. But there is regret.”
Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, tweeted “While the UK policy on Ukr is unlikely to change given public and gov support, Johnson’s departure shows the fragility of Western unity.”
In a comment to the British publication The Independent, Holos Party lawmaker Lesia Vasylenko said Johnson’s successor will have “a very high benchmark to reach,” as Johnson’s government and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace “have set a high standard” for military and political support.
However, Johnson’s critics pointed out that there was a troubling element in his gushing support of Ukraine — namely that he used it to draw attention away from his scandals.
“He was cynical in instrumentalizing Ukraine,” said Bond. “Political commentators here noted how every time in the last few months he faced any kind of domestic political crisis, he would either visit Kyiv or call President Zelensky. And it became something of a joke.”
“I hope that any successors of Boris Johnson would be more focused on the substance of why we need to make sure that Putin is defeated… it may be of more benefit to get a more strategic approach to supporting Ukraine rather than being driven by domestic political drama,” he added.
People whom the British media and analysts believe are likely to replace Johnson include Ben Wallace, one of the architects of British military support to Ukraine. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is also staunchly pro-Ukrainian, is another possible candidate.
“It’s hard to find a bigger bunch of Russophobes,” Kraev quipped.
Others being given good odds include Rishi Sunak, the former finance chief who resigned on July 5; his replacement, Nadhim Zahawi; trade minister Penny Mordaunt; Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committe; and former health secretaries Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, who also served as foreign secretary.
Bond said that Hunt would likely be a “safe, middle of the road” guy on foreign policy, while Mordaunt, with her Royal Navy and defense background, would be strong on foreign policy.
He went on to say that Tugendhat has been strong on Russia, pushing for investigations of illicit Russian finances.
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons’ Defense Committee and another possible candidate to replace Johnson, has taken a strong position on Russia and has pushed for the UK to raise its defense budget, with some success.
Bond expects that Sunak or Zahawi might be more of a gamble for Ukraine, in that they don’t have defense or foreign policy backgrounds and would more likely focus on Britain’s spending in the middle of a financial crisis.
He pointed out that Britain’s inflation problem may force the government to respond by taking money out of the foreign budget, “which has already been cut significantly in the last three years.”
At the same time, “many potential candidates understand that the war has to be won and if that means a delay in cutting taxes or lowering the deficit, they have to do it to win,” he said.