LONDON — When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked British lawmakers for their solidarity in a moving video address to the House of Commons on Tuesday night, he singled out one particular member watching him rapturously from the bench: Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“I am very grateful to you, Boris,” Mr Zelensky said.
It was unusual praise for Mr Johnson, who has faced harsh questioning and harsh criticism in Parliament in recent months for his role in various scandals, in particular the social gatherings at 10 Downing Street which breached coronavirus lockdown restrictions .
But the outbreak of war in Europe has calmed, at least for now, the tumult around the illicit holiday season. Mr Johnson has tried to seize the mantle of a global statesman, playing an early role in supplying Ukraine with deadly defensive weapons and pushing Western allies to impose more crippling financial sanctions on Russia.
The Prime Minister has placed his relationship with the President at the heart of this effort. The two talk to each other almost every day since Russian troops and tanks crossed the Ukrainian border. Mr. Johnson, a 57-year-old former journalist, and Mr. Zelensky, a 44-year-old former comedian and actor, have forged a relationship that officials say includes a healthy dose of humor, even in desperate circumstances.
“He’s identified that Zelensky really is the man of the moment,” said Simon Fraser, the former head of Britain’s Foreign Office. “Politically, it’s very clever. Boris has a flair for these things.
Focusing on Mr Zelensky makes sense, Mr Fraser said, because Britain, following Brexit, can no longer negotiate on behalf of the European Union with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. This difficult diplomacy was led by French President Emmanuel Macron. While Britain has engaged with Moscow, as have Israel, Turkey and other countries, Mr Johnson has had relatively little contact with Mr Putin.
Britain’s highly visible support for Ukraine, however, is a reminder of its role as a NATO anchor and its record of tough action against Russia. On the negative side, the crisis has shone a spotlight on London as a magnet for corrupt Russian money and the government’s failed efforts to clean it up so far.
Even so, said Peter Ricketts, a former British national security adviser and ambassador to France, “It was extremely convenient for Johnson to change the subject of the domestic controversies he faced.”
Just a month ago, Mr Johnson faced the specter of a no-confidence vote from lawmakers in his Conservative Party. Now, even his fiercest detractors admit that now is probably not the time to oust him. Opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer declined to reiterate his call for Mr Johnson’s resignation in a recent TV interview, saying what was important now was to show unity on Ukraine .
“The public’s attention is elsewhere and the issues that predominated before and after Christmas are no longer so,” said Robert Hayward, a pollster who is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. “Because people’s attention is elsewhere, they take on a different perspective.”
Slowly, public anger over lockdown breaches in Downing Street appears to be subsiding and Mr Johnson’s dismal opinion poll ratings are rising. For the first time in months, the news headlines were dominated not by BYOB party news, but by a global crisis that Mr Johnson has played an active role in trying to resolve.
“We clearly see signs of a rallying effect around the flag,” said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent. Mr Johnson, he noted, had gone through multiple crises during his tenure, turning some of them, like the pandemic, into opportunities.
“I think this is a huge opportunity for him to redefine his position as prime minister,” Mr Goodwin said. “The question is whether he has the ability to do it, and the team in place, to make it a reality.”
Forging an alliance with Mr. Zelensky was a natural impulse for Mr. Johnson. The two share a sense of the moment: In his address to lawmakers, Mr Zelensky quoted Winston Churchill’s famous speech at the start of World War II. Churchill happens to be Mr Johnson’s hero, the subject of a biography by him.
Mr Zelensky took Mr Johnson to visit Saint Sophia Cathedral during his visit to Kyiv last month. The two bonded over dinner, officials said, discussing Shakespeare, the subject of another, as yet unfinished, biography of Mr Johnson. Then, in his speech to Parliament, Mr. Zelensky quoted Hamlet.
Ukrainians have expressed their gratitude to Britain in a recent poll, even though Mr Johnson hijacked Mr Zelensky’s call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over his country. At home, Mr Johnson’s grades have improved because, as Mr Hayward noted, ‘there is an advantage to being a leader who stands up to someone like Putin’.
Russo-Ukrainian war: what you need to know
Mr Johnson’s political survival hinges on better polls, analysts said, as some of his lawmakers had concluded he had been so damaged by scandals that he had become a liability to the Tories’ electoral prospects.
Nonetheless, the issues that fueled a growing revolt against his leadership have not gone away. Labor remains ahead in the polls, albeit more narrowly, and police are still investigating whether Mr Johnson broke his own lockdown laws by attending parties in Downing Street. He could be fined, which would be an extraordinary rebuke for a sitting prime minister. .
Once that investigation is complete, Mr Johnson promised to publish a full version of a report on the parties led by senior official Sue Gray. His findings were serious enough to trigger the police investigation and are therefore certain to be harmful.
Other troubles loom on the horizon.
From next month Britons will be squeezed by higher taxes on top of rising interest rates, soaring inflation and soaring energy costs. These bills were already expected to double, even before the war caused the price of oil and gas to skyrocket. Against this tough economic backdrop, the Tories face a local election in May that could be another referendum on Mr Johnson.
While the fortunes of some British leaders have improved during times of international tension, the lessons of history are ambiguous. Margaret Thatcher, for example, benefited enormously from the Falklands War in 1982, but was forced out of her post as Prime Minister in 1990 during the turbulent period leading up to the Gulf War.
Even on Ukraine, Mr. Johnson’s record is mixed. Experts credit Britain with supporting Kiev early with weapons, bolstering NATO’s eastern flank with troops and pushing for punitive financial measures against Moscow.
But he slowly began to sanction Russian individuals and institutions because his post-Brexit laws turned out to be more complicated than expected. He was also criticized for his lack of generosity towards Ukrainian refugees and his half-hearted action against Russian money and the oligarchs who thrived among London’s elite.
“We have this particular problem of Russian oligarchs and London,” Mr Fraser said. “We weren’t rigorous enough to review this early enough.”
Moreover, no one can predict the course of the war or the state of European security by the time the party scandal comes to an end – or at the May elections.
“We don’t know how these different series of events will play out,” Mr. Hayward said. “Is Ukraine going to dominate the public’s attention for one week or for four, six or more weeks? We do not know.