Standing room only as Zelenskiy delivers a lesson in leadership
Just occasionally Westminster can raise its game. Though it usually takes someone from outside to make it happen. A British royal or a foreign head of state. But few visitors have been given the reception granted to Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Not merely extended applause. But a sense of awe. A patriot for any age. An inspirational leader whose country has been at war for nearly a year and who hasn’t once gone missing. Not something we are used to in the UK. Here the nurses and the paramedics are out on strike and you don’t see our government for dust.
More than 2,000 people were crammed into Westminster Hall, waiting for Zelenskiy’s arrival. Standing room only. Near the front were those MPs who had skipped prime minister’s questions to make sure of a prime spot. Right at the front and in the middle, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer exchanged pleasantries. Behind them, Dominic Raab looked manic. Psycho eyes and bitten lips. He looked as if he was about to head-butt someone. The bullying investigation is taking its toll.
At the far end was Liz Truss. Back on Westminster duty for the first time since her resignation. Yet to grace the Commons with her presence, though keen to get an eyeball of a man who knew how to take his country with him. Near her was Boris Johnson. Looking a complete mess. Hair a disaster, skin pallid, face bloated.
If you didn’t know better, you’d have thought Boris was the politician in a state of war. He checked his bank balance. Yup. Another million quid in his pocket for off-the-cuff speeches. It’s amazing how much you can earn for not doing the day job. You also got the feeling that the whole occasion would have been very different if he had still been prime minister. Johnson would have been up on the stage, hogging the limelight. Basking in the reflected glory.
Shortly after 1pm, the Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle and the lord speaker, John McFall, led Zelenskiy, dressed in his trademark military fatigues, into the hall. Cue the first of many ovations. And some whoops of “Slava Ukraini”. This was to be an occasion like no other. Having made their way to the steps, Hoyle did the introductions. Reminding everyone that Zelenskiy had previously visited Westminster in 2020. Back then no one had paid much attention. He was just the comedian who somehow wound up president. No one was making that mistake now.
Then Zelenskiy took his turn at the lectern. There would be polite words. Powerful words. How could there not be? But this wasn’t any old boilerplate leader’s speech. The odd well-turned phrase and pleasantries. Those had their place, but the Ukrainian president was driven by a sense of urgency. It was a moment to cut to the chase. His country was in jeopardy and he would do whatever it took to defend it.
Brave souls, he began. Bizarrely he was talking about us. We Brits who had stood by Ukraine. No one in the hall felt particularly brave. Especially when he went on to talk about his own countrymen, fighting in the trenches on the frontline. The mothers and fathers waiting to see if their sons and daughters would ever come home. That’s a different order of courage. A category error. But we’ll bank the sentiment.
Then Zelenskiy addressed Sunak directly. “Thank you, Rishi.” Thank you for the tanks. The training. It felt like the least we could do. He recalled visiting the cabinet war rooms and being invited to sit in Churchill’s armchair. Now he understood the significance. The feeling. Bravery takes you through unimaginable hardships to reward you with victory. You weren’t going to win any wars snacking on the granola Rish! had served up for breakfast at Downing Street.
Next, Volodymyr turned to Boris. Credit where credit’s due. Ukraine is one thing Johnson got right. A stopped clock and all that. There was a smattering of applause. Boris lapped it up. He started tweeting excerpts of the speech in which he was mentioned. A narcissist gotta do what a narcissist gotta do. This had only ever been about one person. And it wasn’t Zelenskiy.
The president praised Johnson’s grit. For being one of the first to stand by his country and to offer something more than warm words. There could be no compromise with Russia. Democracy had prevailed in the second world war and the cold war and it would again. Evil would lose. Freedom would prevail. Victory would bring an end to the very idea of war. It was almost the War to End All Wars.
Then we got to the heart of it. The moment where Zelenskiy turned Bob Geldof. Not so much “Give us your fucking money” as “Give us your fucking planes”. He hadn’t come to the UK on a jolly. To make small talk. He had come for a reason. Defence wasn’t a word; it was an action. Whatever Ukraine needed, he would beg, steal or borrow to deliver. In the UK, we had a king who had once been an air force pilot. In Ukraine it was the pilots who were kings.
To mark the visit, Zelenskiy presented Hoyle with a fighter pilot’s helmet. Not just any helmet, but that belonging to Ukraine’s top ace. Not the usual gift from a foreign dignitary. The applause was overwhelming. This battle was won. MPs and peers cheering on an appeal for planes. The government could never refuse them now. Job done. Zelenskiy could sit down. He had made just a little of the darkness visible.
Earlier at prime minister’s questions, the usual hostilities had also been put on hold. Starmer used all six questions to offer support for Ukraine. Maybe it had been pre-agreed with Downing Street. Maybe it hadn’t. Sunak certainly seemed to be wrongfooted. It sounded as if the Labour leader was the prime minister: Rish! just the apprentice.
The mood was catching. “Slava Ukraini,” said Tory Philip Hollobone. What the people of Ukraine really need in their darkest hour was a new hospital in Kettering. It’s a view, I suppose. Read the room, Philip.