DALLAS — Britain might have fallen out of love with Boris Johnson. But Ukraine’s allies in the U.S. reckon the charismatic ex-prime minister is still the perfect messenger to shore up support for the war in wavering Republican heartlands.
Pro-Ukraine think tankers on Monday brought Johnson to a private lunch in Dallas, Texas, to meet two dozen of the state’s leading conservative figures, including politicians, donors and captains of industry.
The message Johnson was there to deliver was simple: America must stay the course in Ukraine.
“I just urge you all to stick with it,” Johnson told those seated in the grand, wood-panelled dining room in downtown Dallas, where POLITICO was also in attendance. “It will pay off massively in the long run.”
The former U.K. prime minister flew to Texas as a growing number of conservative lawmakers, candidates and activists have started to question the size of the U.S. support package for Ukraine as it attempts to fight back against the invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022.
Political tensions over the war are expected to rise further as the 2024 U.S. election draws nearer.
The two most high-profile potential candidates for the Republican nomination — former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — have both voiced skepticism about America’s unwavering support for Ukraine. Trump has pledged to cut a “deal” to “end that war in one day,” while DeSantis dismissed it as a “territorial dispute” which does not involve America’s “vital national interests — though later partially backtracked.
But Johnson told Texan Republicans on Monday: “You are backing the right horse. Ukraine is going to win. They are going to defeat Putin.”
The lunch was not the first time Johnson has lobbied U.S. lawmakers on Ukraine’s behalf. He visited Washington in January, where he publicly urged the U.S. administration to give Ukraine fighter jets, and privately met Republican lawmakers on the same trip.
Following that visit, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) — a bipartisan, Ukraine-supporting think tank based in Washington — decided to enlist Johnson’s support for a broader mission.
The group wanted him to take his energetic, pro-conservative case for the war out of metropolitan D.C. and deep into Republican territory.
“We wanted to make that case outside of Washington — where we all live in a bubble — and to really take it to the heartland, to places like Texas, to get more support for Ukraine, and make the case to people who are skeptical about that support,” said Alina Polyakova, CEPA’s chief executive.
“In many ways Dallas and Texas are the center of the Republican debate,” she added.
Texas will be a key battleground in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Trump held his first presidential rally in the Lone Star State in March, while DeSantis and former Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley have also been courting votes in Texas.
Johnson is “very much seen as the architect of the Western policy” on Ukraine, Polyakova said, adding that “because Trump had nice things to say about him when he was the president,” it also gives Johnson “a lot of credibility as well with the base of the Republican Party.”
As well as the private lunch with Republicans in Dallas on Monday, Johnson also met with former U.S. President George W. Bush, who lives in the city with his wife Laura. Johnson is due to meet Texas Governor Greg Abbott in Austin on Tuesday.
Unusually, the former U.K. prime minister, who raked in almost £5 million from speaking fees in the first six months after leaving office, was not paid for Monday’s lunchtime speaking engagement. However, he did arrange the Dallas trip as a stopover en route to the SCALE Global Summit in Las Vegas, a fintech conference where he will be paid an expected six-figure sum for a scheduled speech.
Man on a mission
Johnson has kept Ukraine at the top of his public agenda since being forced to resign as PM last July over a string of personal scandals, including his attendance at COVID-19 lockdown-busting parties at his Downing Street home and office.
In power, Johnson had forged a strong personal bond with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and played a leading role in early Western efforts to arm Ukraine. His allies even mooted the idea of him becoming a formal envoy to Ukraine following his abrupt Downing Street exit, though the idea never came to fruition.
That hasn’t stopped Johnson continuing his personal lobbying push, however. He visited the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in January 2023 — despite no longer being a frontline politician — and has continued to speak in support on multiple occasions.
At the Dallas lunch on Monday, Johnson insisted Western backing for Ukraine need not be indefinite, telling those present he had “every hope that the Ukrainians will be able to deliver a very substantial counterpunch this summer,” and that he believed there was “a prospect of a complete Russian military collapse.”
And addressing concerns in Republican quarters that the U.S. should be focusing its attention on China rather than on a land war in Eastern Europe, Johnson said victory for Putin would be “terrible in its ramifications for south-east Asia, for the South China Sea, for all the areas of potential conflict between the great powers in the decades to come.”
By contrast, he added, Western solidarity on Ukraine had already sent a clear message to China.
“From Beijing’s point of view, they’re looking at this and they’re thinking this has massively increased the strategic ambiguity and the risk surrounding a venture against Taiwan,” Johnson said.
One businessman present pressed Johnson on corruption in Ukraine, which he said he had heard was “really bad again.”
But the former prime minister insisted the $50 billion spending package agreed by President Biden would prove “value for money.” The U.S. is getting a “huge, huge boost for global security for a relatively small outlay,” he said.
And Johnson being Johnson, he couldn’t resist a swipe at his old rival Emmanuel Macron, whom he has reportedly referred to in private as “Putin’s lickspittle.”
“I think it was my French friend and colleague Emmanuel Macron who said ‘Putin must not be humiliated,’” Johnson told the lunch party, adopting a faux French accent to gently mock the president.
“I think it takes an awful lot to humiliate Vladimir Putin, frankly,” Johnson went on. “I don’t think it’s our job to worry about Vladimir Putin’s ego, or his political prospects, or developments in his career.”
Whether Johnson retains the populist credentials to win over the most ardent Trump supporters Stateside remains to be seen, however.
In an interview with Nigel Farage on GB News last month, Trump said that while Johnson was a “wonderful guy” and “a friend of mine,” he had been disappointed by his time in office.
Johnson had gone “a bit on the liberal side,” Trump noted sadly. “Probably in a negative way.”