You can’t blame Boris Johnson for jetting off to Kyiv last week for another meet-and-greet session with Volodymyr Zelensky. He got a warmer reception from the Ukrainian President than he would have in Doncaster, the town he snubbed in order to grandstand on the international stage.
Johnson was scheduled to have made an appearance at the conference of northern Conservatives, where organisers had hoped he would woo Red Wall voters by explaining how, two and a half years after they loaned him their vote, he intends to ‘level up’ their town.
But to the consternation of many MPs, Johnson decided he had more important issues on the other side of Europe with his ‘great friend’ Zelensky. It’s not just the President who can’t get enough of the British PM; he’s also captured the hearts of Ukraine’s Cossack community who have officially made him one of their own, bestowing on Johnson the name ‘Boris Chuprina’, which means ‘a long lock of hair’.
It beats ‘the clown’, which is how he is known – if the rumours are to be believed – in the Elysée Palace. Not that Emmanuel Macron is in a position to mock Johnson after his Ensemble coalition was humbled in Sunday’s parliamentary election. Jupiter, as Macron was called when he became President in 2017, has himself been struck down with a bolt of lightning and unless he can temper his legendary hauteur with some humility his presidency will be moribund for the next five years.
It was his hubris that was Macron’s undoing, a flaw that has characterised his presidency, but recently he also made the mistake of devoting more of his time and attention to Ukraine than his own country’s myriad domestic ills.
During the presidential campaign, Macron was a peripheral figure, the only one of the 12 candidates not to participate in a televised debate. Only when the polls began to show that Marine Le Pen was closing the gap on what had, at the start of March, been a 15 point lead, did Macron divert his focus from Ukraine to address the rising energy prices and the cost of living crisis, issues of far more importance to the French than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the director of one polling company put it in April: ‘I don’t think that this war has fundamentally modified the choice of the French.’
And therein lies an uncomfortable truth for Macron, and for Johnson; namely that their electorates are far less preoccupied by events in Ukraine than they are. War fatigue set in a long time ago; that’s not to say that people living on the poverty line in Doncaster or Dunkirk don’t care about the war, but they are understandably more concerned about their daily hardships: filling their cars with petrol, the impossibility of seeing their GP, rising crime and the spiralling cost of food.
Yet what was Macron’s priority last week? Ukraine. It stuck in the craw of many French, receiving another of their President’s  bombastic addresses about rejecting extremists and rallying to the republican cause, moments before he hopped in a plane for a photo opportunity with Zelensky.
The major preoccupations of voters during campaigning for the legislative elections were purchasing power (53 per cent), the health system (36 per cent), the environment (29 per cent) and then delinquency, immigration and pensions, all tied on 22 per cent. The war in Ukraine? That was an issue for only 18 per cent of the electorate. According to Brice Teinturier, director general of the Ipsos polling company, the principal reason why over 50 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote was that these issues were not addressed during campaigning. ‘The disinterest of the French is also the responsibility of the politicians, notably Emmanuel Macron,’ he said.
The BBC reports that something similar has been seen in Tiverton and Honiton, ahead of tomorrow’s by-election, where people are feeling the pinch just as the French are. ‘Our wages and universal credit aren’t coming up as much as everything else is,’ explained one mother. ‘It is just a general struggle.’
Johnson made a mistake last week in ditching Doncaster for Kyiv, and he compounded his error with Macron-esque pomposity on his return to the UK. ‘When Ukraine fatigue is setting in, it is very important to show that we are with them for the long haul,’ he declared. What about the fatigue of the British people, like those in Wakefield, scene of this week’s second by-election, where more than a third of families with children live in poverty and more and more households are struggling to pay their bills?
Rather like climate change, the obsession of the political and media class with Ukraine is not reflected in wider society, at least not among the more impoverished sections of the population. Hard-nosed but not cold-hearted, they have enough problems of their own without worrying about what’s going on more than a thousand miles to the east. Their leaders should remember that because it is not Ukrainian voters who have their fates in their hands.
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