Ukraine-Russia war: Boris Johnson could be a worthy leader if he learns from Ukraine's own Winston Churchill, Volodymyr Zelensky – Alastair Stewart

For years I have been trying to understand our fascination with the Second World War. And my best explanation – that it was a war of good against evil – is the main reason behind the terror I feel over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Boris Johnson joins people during services at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Mayfair, London, on Sunday (Picture: Jamie Lorriman/WPA Pool/Getty Images)Boris Johnson joins people during services at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Mayfair, London, on Sunday (Picture: Jamie Lorriman/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson joins people during services at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Mayfair, London, on Sunday (Picture: Jamie Lorriman/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

As Martin Sheen's US President Jed Bartlett said in TV drama West Wing: “Every once in a while, there's a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong. But those days almost always include body counts.”

The Second World War was not just our “finest hour” – the country was at the forefront of a campaign against what we could now call cliched baddies. The Nazis were evil – no ifs, no buts, no historical revisionism 80 years later.

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And Russia's invasion of Ukraine has left us with the same verdict. President Vladimir Putin has committed his country to an egregious assault on an innocent nation. It is hard to comprehend if a change of government alone will be enough to restore Russia's reputation.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's handling of the situation has struck the right note so far. The imposition of swift sanctions, robust rhetoric denouncing the invasion, and the guarantee of economic and military aid is leadership in action.

The question is – what next?

Johnson finally has an opportunity to do things right. His idol Winston Churchill believed himself to be a man of destiny. Johnson has continually floundered in the top job. Scandal after scandal has beleaguered the Prime Minister who has inspired such acidic hatred that 'Tory' is now a byword for everything wrong in modern politics.

But whatever one thinks of Johnson, he could well be our Prime Minister in an actual wartime situation.

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It is romantic nonsense to say Johnson deserves deferential respect because of global circumstances. Churchill never had that and was never vain enough to covet it.

The UK government's response to Covid was mired by accusations of mismanagement and the absurd spectacle of Cabinet ministers’ partying as the nation locked down.

Still, this government is once again what we have in the gravest of circumstances. We should want it to succeed, we need it to succeed, and the Prime Minister must find sure footing in the weeks and even months ahead.

Johnson has always craved a comparison to Churchill and always managed to blow it. An unprecedented global health crisis and Brexit should have been opportunities to cement Johnson's reputation as a skilled politician at last living up to his potential.

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But at the moment, no one would say of Johnson what he said of Churchill: “He was the large protruding nail on which destiny snagged her coat.”

Churchill's idiosyncrasies and chequered record were matched by a fearless determination and a genuine capacity for statesmanship.

Johnson should look east at Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian president has not only rallied Ukrainians but the free world against Putin.

The former actor and comedian has mustered qualities he was derided for not having when he took office in 2019, the same year as Johnson. And he has found and made unprecedented use of social media to galvanise a nation.

Wartime leadership with Facebook live videos and Twitter posts has proved remarkably effective. Heartening videos and stories of everyday Ukrainians doing their bit and the bravery for her armed forces are wedded into a narrative by Zelensky leading from the front.

What's perversely ironic is this is the second time such an innovation has happened in the region.

The Crimean War (1853-56) is sometimes called the first modern war. Weaponry and tactics were used which affected all later wars. But it was also the first war to quickly use a telegraph to give information to newspapers around the world. For the first time, photography made it possible to have evidence of the horrors of warfare.

The genius of Zelensky is to understand that his audience is not just Ukrainians but westerners looking for assurance that there is a fight left. He refuses to leave the capital, and he is defiant. It is a play straight from Churchill's oeuvre.

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The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is a refreshing take on Churchill's histrionics and love of drama.

Cigars, the ‘V for Victory’ sign, and impressive assemblage of ever-present military uniforms and headgear was a strategy meshed with his distinct persona. He fell into a disagreement with King George VI over wanting to lead men on the beaches of Normandy.

At times, his almost theatrical sense of destiny caused dismay in some of his colleagues, particularly his military advisers. And yet he set the tone of the war for the world at large. The year 1940 enabled Churchill to inspire and lead Britain as no one else could have done. It brought the Allies together in one common struggle.

Johnson's problem is also his solution. For 20 years, he was dubbed a fumbling, self-deprecating man of potential. “There must be vast intelligence behind his shenanigans” was the public consensus. He became a household mononym as a result.

Some Scottish politicians have seized the opportunity to belittle Johnson. Much of his politics has been abhorrent but not as bad as his general intransigence and conceit since taking office.

So we come to an impasse. Stuck on a broken zip wire and covered in Union flags is but one destiny for Boris Johnson. But there is an alternative.

By providing the kind of innovative, inspiring leadership he has always felt able, by disciplining his baser instincts, as Churchill did, he could be a worthy premier in dark times.

Whatever one thinks of the man, President George HW Bush neatly surmised our situation in a letter to his successor Bill Clinton.

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“Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.”

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