Voters seem to want Ministers to arm the Ukrainian government, on the one hand, but avoid being drawn into war with Russia, on the other. And take in more refugees. And urge other governments to act likewise.
I stress the mutability of what they want because public opinion can change rapidly. One cannot be sure how it would react were Vladimir Putin to authorise cyber attacks that took out basic services in the UK, such as hospital computers or cash machines.
Or we he to authorise further chemical weapon attacks, like the one in Salisbury carried out in 2018. Or were the flow of Ukrainian refugees, plus arrivals from Hong Kong, plus a rise in small boats to be conflated in the public mind as an immigration system out of control.
But the balancing act that I describe above isn’t impossible, at least at the moment, and voters seem to believe that Boris Johnson is managing it well. At the start of the month, YouGov reported that a majority was doing so for the first time (by 42 per cent to 32 per cent).
In the middle of it, Opinium found a big majority supportive of sending arms to Ukraine. (It also had 50 per cent of respondents saying that the Government had not gone far enough in accepting refugees into Britain.)
Furthermore, voters won’t be impervious to reports of what Ukrainians are saying themselves. Let’s start with what they told a poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft and conducted from Kyiv a few weeks ago.
A majority believed that only one country was doing enough to help them: Britain. Another survey, conducted by jointly by Cygnal, Gradus, and Response, has found Johnson second in popularity to Volodymyr Zelensky in a poll of world leaders.
Some Brits will also take into account what Zelensky is saying himself. Here he is in a new interview with the Economist. “To be honest, Johnson is a leader who is helping more. The leaders of countries react according to how their constituents act.”
“In this case, Johnson is an example…Britain is definitely on our side. It is not performing a balancing act. Britain sees no alternative for the way out of the situation. Britain wants Ukraine to win and Russia to lose, but I’m not ready to say whether Britain wants the war to drag on or not.”
You may be wondering who the Prime Minister is “helping more” than. The answer is Emmanuel Macron. Zelensky’s language about France’s president and government is direct. “They are afraid of Russia. And that’s it. And those who say it first are the first to be afraid.”
Then there is Germany: “it’s not always about us, what we need and what the world needs. I think the Germans are making a mistake today. I think they make mistakes often. I think the legacy of Germany’s relations with Russia shows this.”
My own take is that British voters, when they think about Germany and Ukraine at all, will give credit to Olaf Scholz for seeking to reorder the country’s energy and security policies – though delivery will take time and is uncertain.
They will be less forgiving of Macron’s attempts to position his country as a force independent of America, part of a long tradition in French politics, and his reported attempt to dress like Zelensky (if that’s what he was actually doing).
And if Brits note what Zelensky is saying about Johnson, they will also clock the view of the Kremlin, which has described the Prime Minister as “the most active participant in the race to be anti-Russian”.
Johnson has been mauled over refugees, sanctions and Conservative links with Russian plutocrats by much of the media and many of his opponents. Some of the criticism is justified and some of it not.
On the one hand, the Party itself became too relaxed institutionally about donations by Brits of Russian origin during the last decade. On the other, claims that these explain slow going over oligarch sanctions are wide of the mark.
What did most to delay these was culture, not intent: a combination of Britain’s human rights laws and civil service gold plating. Meanwhile, the Government was clearly in the vanguard over Russian central bank SWIFT system sanctions.
Johnson’s ratings haven’t recovered from the hammering they took over Partygate. But even if unchanged by the time of the next general election, they won’t be the beginning and end of voters’ verdict on him.
For by that point they will be seriously weighing up Labour as a potential party of government, which they aren’t doing now. But even as it is, the party’s lead over the Conservatives has narrowed.
As recently as January 17, Politico’s poll of polls put it at the best part of ten per cent. Today, it is down to three points. That’s not much by classic mid-term standards. If Johnson survives Partygate, and doubtless other ructions to come, a second election win can’t be written off.
What does one want in a war leader? There are many requirements, but one of the foremost is a temperamental bias against panic. Johnson isn’t neurotic, whatever else may be said of him, and has a tough hide, residual cunning and, in some respects, conventional instincts.
The British way during the Cold War was to stand with America against the Soviet Union. That began before we became an EU member and continued afterwards. Now we are no longer one and the Soviet Union doesn’t exist.
But we have continued that approach into the age of Putin and that of Brexit. And even those who couldn’t put up with Johnson’s leadership over the issue, or on other terms, to the cost of their own careers now praise him.
Here’s Rory Stewart: “I think he’s a terrible human being. I think he’s a terrible prime minister but I think he’s done OK on the Ukraine crisis.” If one of Johnson’s most eloquent critics can see that, then so can many others whose view of him is less settled.