Boris Johnson did not compare the Ukraine war to Brexit, a senior cabinet minister has said – claiming that “normal people” would choose to interpret his controversial comments differently.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said criticism of the prime minister’s remarks at the Conservative spring conference was “spurious”, arguing that some people had taken him out of context.
Mr Johnson had some it was the “instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom every time” – before saying people voted for Brexit so the UK could “run itself”.
But Mr Javid said Mr Johnson had been talking about universal “self-determination” without making a comparison between Brexit and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The minister told Sky News: “I think it’s spurious to say he was connecting, somehow, UK and Ukraine in that way – most normal people wouldn’t have drawn that conclusion.”
Mr Javid added: “What I heard from the prime minister was the … basically the desire for self-determination in everyone, no matter what country they’re in, no matter what their circumstance, is strong. I don’t think in any way he was connecting the situations in Ukraine and the UK.”
The health secretary also defended Mr Johnson’s comments on BBC Breakfast, insisting it was “not the case” that the PM had not compared Ukraine’s fight against Russia to Brexiteers’ struggle against the EU.
Mr Javid added: “When it comes to Boris Johnson and Ukraine, it’s hard to find any world leader that’s done more to support Ukraine at this time.”
Mr Johnson’s comments in a speech to the Tory spring conference has sparked fury, with one European statesman branding it “disgraceful”.
Former European Council president Donald Tusk said: “I can still remember the enthusiasm of Putin and Trump after the referendum. Boris, your words offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense.”
Labour has called on Mr Johnson to apologise for his “crass” remarks at the Tory spring conference in Blackpool.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, told Sky News: “It is utterly distasteful and insulting to compare the fight for freedom against the aggression of the Russian state to the decision to leave the EU.”
In an awkward exchange on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, the chancellor Rishi Sunak distanced himself from the remarks and declined to repeat the parallel made by the prime minister.
“I don’t think those two situations are directly analogous,” said Mr Sunak. “Clearly they are not directly analogous and I don’t think the prime minister was saying they are directly analogous.”