Boris Johnson compares Ukraine to Brits 'wanting to be free' by choosing Brexit in conference speech

ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan on the reaction to the PM's performance at the Conservative Blackpool conference

Boris Johnson has compared Ukraine choosing freedom to people of the United Kingdom choosing Brexit, in his Conservative Party conference speech.

The Prime Minister said Vladimir Putin was in a “total panic” about the prospect of a popular uprising if freedom was allowed to flourish in Kyiv.

And he said that it is the instinct of the people of this country, "like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom every time."

The prime minister said the British public voted for Brexit in order 'to be free'

He told party members: "I can give you a couple of famous recent examples.

"When the British people voted for Brexit in such large numbers I don't believe it was remotely because they were remotely hostile to foreigners - it was because they wanted to be free."

The comparison was criticised by Tory peer Lord Barwell, who pointed out Ukraine is seeking to join the European Union. Joining the chorus of criticism, the former European Council president, Donald Tusk, said the PM's words “offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense”. There was also a rebuke from senior French diplomats, including the country’s ambassador in the UK.

Tory chairman of the Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood said Mr Johnson’s comparison “damages the standard of statecraft” being exhibited in the response to the invasion.

Speaking to ITV News on Sunday morning, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke said the PM was making a "perfectly fair point".

"When people have the choice in their lives, they want to uphold freedom of decision making and I think that's a perfectly fair point to make.

"Clearly there isn't a direct comparison, and nor is he making one, but the fact is that people ought to be free to make decision affecting their own lives".

Boris Johnson also said in his speech that Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of his neighbour was motivated by the fear a successful Ukraine would trigger a pro-democracy revolution in Moscow.

Mr Johnson said the war was a “turning point for the world”, forcing countries to stand up to Russia rather than “making accommodations with tyranny”.

Failure to support Ukraine now would result in a “new age of intimidation across eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea”.

STV Political Correspondent Kathryn Samson sums up the reaction to the comments

In his party's spring conference in Blackpool, Mr Johnson said Mr Putin’s actions were not the result of concern about Nato – “he didn’t really believe that Ukraine was going to join Nato any time soon” – or the prospect of Western missiles being based there.

He also dismissed Mr Putin’s “crazy essay” about the historical unity of the people of the two countries as “semi-mystical guff” and “Nostradamus meets Russian Wikipedia”.

“I think he was frightened of Ukraine for an entirely different reason,” Mr Johnson said to an audience including Kyiv’s representative in the UK, Vadym Prystaiko.

“He was frightened of Ukraine because in Ukraine they have a free press and in Ukraine they have free elections.”

It is “precisely because Ukraine and Russia have been so historically close that he has been terrified of the effect of that Ukrainian model on him and on Russia”.

“He has been in a total panic about a so-called colour revolution in Moscow itself and that is why he is trying so brutally to snuff out the flame of freedom in Ukraine and that’s why it is so vital that he fails,” Mr Johnson said.

“A victorious Putin will not stop in Ukraine, and the end of freedom in Ukraine will mean the extinction of any hope of freedom in Georgia and then Moldova, it will mean the beginning of a new age of intimidation across eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea.”

Listen to our podcast for the latest analysis on the invasion

Mr Johnson acknowledged there was little hope of an imminent change in Russian leadership.

“I don’t believe that democratic freedoms are going to sprout any time soon in the Kremlin, far from it.

“But with every day that passes I think that Putin becomes a more glaring advertisement for the system that he hates and despises, and it becomes ever more obvious why we have to stick up for Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Mr Putin to hold face-to-face talks despite UK fears Moscow will use negotiations as a “smokescreen” to prepare for an even more brutal assault.

Watch: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issues a video plea for peace talks

Mr Zelenskyy used a video message to say “it’s time to meet, time to talk” but, in the UK, Cabinet ministers urged caution about talks with the Putin regime.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said it was up to Mr Zelenskyy how his country approached peace talks but she was “very sceptical” about the Kremlin’s position.

She told The Times: “If a country is serious about negotiations, it doesn’t indiscriminately bomb civilians that day.”

Ms Truss said talks could be a “smokescreen” and “what we’ve seen is an attempt to create space for the Russians to regroup”.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss talks with ambassador of Ukraine to the UK Vadym Prystaiko Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

Tory party chairman Oliver Dowden told Times Radio: “We of course have to treat the Russians with a high degree of scepticism given that they were the ones that commenced this war.”

He said the UK had to have a “hard-headed sceptical approach” but “if we can find a way through to a peaceful and negotiated settlement we should of course try to achieve that”.

In Ukraine, fighting continued on multiple fronts but 10 humanitarian corridors were established for aid and refugees – including one from the besieged port city of Mariupol and several around capital Kyiv.

British defence intelligence specialists believe Russia will wage a war of attrition, having failed in its goal of rapidly conquering its neighbour.

“This is likely to involve the indiscriminate use of firepower resulting in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, and intensify the humanitarian crisis,” the Ministry of Defence said.