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Johnson’s approval rating the lowest for a Tory leader in over two decades

London Letter: Government’s military assistance to Ukraine deflects from its dwindling diplomatic role in relation to the crisis

As Westminster waits for Sue Gray’s report on the Downing Street parties, Boris Johnson’s approval rating has fallen lower than Theresa May’s and David Cameron’s at their lowest.

At -46 according to Ipsos-MORI, his rating is the lowest reached by any Conservative leader apart from Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and John Major in 1994.

Thatcher hit -56 after the introduction of the poll tax and she was overthrown by Conservative MPs a few months later. Major's rating dipped to -59 after the Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis from which his government never recovered.

As political scientist Rob Ford noted on Thursday, the only example of a leader falling below -40 and recovering to win the next general election is Thatcher during her first term in office.

“She hit this rating in the middle of a deep recession, and benefitted from a successful war, a strong recovery and a divided opposition when running two years later,” he said.

Johnson faces economic headwinds from a cost of living crisis fuelled by his government's planned tax increases, while Keir Starmer's Labour has no threat from the right equivalent to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the 1980s. The crisis over Ukraine has little in common with Thatcher's war over the Falklands but Johnson's supporters have pointed to it as a reason not to get rid of him right now.

The Ukrainian parliament on Thursday ratified an agreement with London for a £1.7 billion (€2 billion) loan package to buy two British minesweeper vessels and for British contractors to work with Ukraine to build eight missile ships and a frigate and to retrofit British weapons systems to existing Ukrainian naval vessels. Britain sent 2000 anti-tank missile launchers to Ukraine last week and has sent military trainers to support the country’s armed forces.

Since 2015, Britain has trained more than 20,000 Ukrainian military personnel, provided non-lethal military equipment worth more than £2 million and deployed warships to the Black Sea. Britain has also intensified its military co-operation with Poland and the Baltic states, sharing high-end military capabilities and signals intelligence.

For Johnson’s admirers, this is evidence of Global Britain at work as the country demonstrates its effectiveness as a security actor after Brexit. They contrast London’s decisive and robust response to Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border with divisions among European governments and the European Union’s lack of a leadership role.

It is notable that defence secretary Ben Wallace rather than foreign secretary Liz Truss has been in the forefront of Britain's response to the Ukraine crisis. This reflects the fact that, for all its enthusiasm and firepower, Britain is not a major player in the diplomatic efforts surrounding it.

Apart from the bilateral negotiation between Moscow and Washington over the future European security architecture, the other main diplomatic forum to resolve the conflict is the Normandy format involving Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

Outside the EU, Britain cannot magnify its reach in the same way that France and Germany can – bilaterally, through the EU, Nato, the OSCE and in their own relationships with the US.

Ambitious changes

The Ukraine crisis has seen Washington pay more attention than before to the EU itself as a foreign policy actor, recognising its power to co-ordinate effective sanctions and its huge financial assistance to Ukraine. Little noticed in London is how the EU has changed since Britain left and how the coronavirus pandemic not only exposed Europe’s vulnerabilities but also spurred important and ambitious changes.

The €750 billion recovery fund was established in response to coronavirus but it is being used to strengthen digital infrastructure and promote green development. And the crisis persuaded all 27 member states to endorse the aim of strategic autonomy for the EU in October 2020.

In Pandemonium, his critical account of Europe's response to the pandemic, Dutch political theorist Luuk van Middelaar says the confrontation between China and the US under Donald Trump made Europe's metamorphosis into a different kind of geopolitical actor more urgent.

“Sticking to the text, as in rules-politics, is not sufficient to see off assertive opponents and major global turbulence,” he writes.

"The European Union would henceforth have to engage in events-politics, as a player with skin in the game, with power and a narrative. In respect of both, this was an historic turning point."

Insofar as British political elites are aware of these changes, they mostly prefer to ignore them and to relax back into their settled narrative of the EU being doomed to be an economic giant and a geopolitical dwarf.

Its military assistance to Ukraine and deployments to eastern Europe are impressive but as Britain doubles down on defence it risks drifting further away from the diplomatic action.