Britain may have had three Prime Ministers, but the British public’s wholehearted support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion began a year ago has hardly wavered. In every poll our firm Redfield & Wilton Strategies has conducted in the past year, members of the public have clearly expressed support for the United Kingdom’s policy towards the war in Ukraine, with approval often outnumbering disapproval by a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 ratio.
At the same time, the last year has been dire for the Conservative Party. On the economy, healthcare, and immigration, the key issues that voters say will determine how they will vote in the next election, majorities say they disapprove of the Government’s performance—the inverse of the approval on the Government’s Ukraine policy.
Surveying this politically destitute landscape, Rishi Sunak may be tempted to believe that the government’s priorities are backwards. Less emphasis could be placed on the war in Ukraine, his thinking may go, so that we can focus on our problems here at home. Yet, such a wishful approach would be a moral and a political blunder, running counter to the United Kingdom’s own strong sense of itself.
It is true, our polling has shown, that the public perceives their political leaders to have devoted a significant amount of attention to the war in Ukraine, more than it is perceived to have given to other areas of concern. Ask anyone in this country if they think their government is trying to address the United Kingdom’s own problems with the same amount of urgency as it has responded to the war in Ukraine, and the answer will almost invariably be no.
But a reduction in what the government devotes, whether financially, militarily, or even temporally, to Ukraine would not ameliorate this imbalance. The public would not automatically assume that such a change implies a proportionate increase in the attention devoted towards domestic issues. If anything, it would only further extend the public’s currently low opinion of the Conservative Party to yet another policy area.
Let us not forget that when Boris Johnson resigned last summer the one policy area where more voters wanted continuity, rather than discontinuity, in his successor was the war in Ukraine. Even at that low point for Johnson, a plurality of the public was willing to support the former Prime Minister being appointed to a special role where he could continue to be involved in Britain’s support for Ukraine.
Today, as Labour leads by more than 20-points in voting intention polling, suggesting a potential heavy electoral defeat, the Conservatives Party remains the party most trusted on the issue of Ukraine, including in the Red Wall seats the Conservatives are defending at the next election.
Thus, while Rishi Sunak may fret about his predecessors’ urgings on Ukraine, allowing Keir Starmer, who last week visited Kyiv to stress that a Labour Government would support Ukraine just as much as this Government has, to outflank the Conservatives on the one issue where they have public support should be of greater concern to the Prime Minister.
The British public has no illusions about the costs of supporting Ukraine. 60% of voters say the sanctions levied on Russia by the United Kingdom and its allies have brought a fair or a significant amount of damage to the UK’s own economy (as opposed to a small amount or no damage at all). Meanwhile, 83% of voters do not expect this war to end in 2023.
But the public also does not accept the notion of a trade-off, in part because they see some of the UK’s economic problems as self-inflicted. When asked last year what they blame most for the bad state of the economy, voters were more likely to blame the UK Government’s policies than the war in Ukraine or even the coronavirus pandemic. It was for this reason that Liz Truss’ pitch for a new direction on the economy resonated with Conservative Party members in August last year.
Rather than lowering (or refusing to up) the ante on Ukraine, Rishi Sunak needs to bring the same level of dedication and urgency his party has given to the war in Ukraine to the domestic problems here at home. That, not declinism, is his best path to his political survival.