Parliament on a Wednesday isn’t where you’d normally go to feel proud to be British. PMQs has become a sorry spectacle; less towering oratory and more tedious onanism. Today, however, was an exception. It took a short, khaki-clad and what would have been – until recently – an unlikely figure to remind Parliamentarians that on one particular issue, both main parties are united, almost to an MP, and all Britons might justifiably take pride.
Hundreds had thronged into Westminster Hall for the address; MPs, Lords, parliamentary staff, cameramen, hacks and their polar opposites – wooden angels, gazing down from the hammer-beam roof in silent witness. Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer stood at the front of the crowd, almost blinded by the piercing light from the vast stained glass window opposite. President Zelensky is undoubtedly a master of presentation, with the comic wit’s ear for a turn of phrase, even in a foreign language. He praised the British national character and offered up a chiasmus worthy of Churchill or JFK; “In Britain, the King is an Air Force pilot, and in Ukraine every Air Force pilot is a king.” He brought a brilliantly light touch even to the most existential of matters; pivoting between thanking Parliament for tea and preemptively thanking them for yet-to-arrive planes.
What a piece of rhetoric this was – all the more so when compared to the non-speak that often prevails in Westminster. Our politicians speak cautiously, to avoid actually saying something. Even the word ‘say’ looks outdated; MPs more often “intimate” or “indicate”, just as they prefer to “deliver” than “do” and favour “challenges” over “problems”. Zelensky’s cadences thus carried extraordinary weight; we heard rarely-uttered words like “mankind”, “bravery”, “freedom”, “evil”. It was forceful, stirring, at times overwhelming – the rhetorical equivalent of being bulldozed by a Challenger tank. Again and again Westminster hall erupted into applause: Theresa May and Liz Truss, neither of whom ever quite managed oratory on a Chamberlainian level, let alone a Churchillian one, clapped rapturously. Boris Johnson, who often tried to imitate Britain’s wartime premier and came closer, beamed. He might still resemble the Honey Monster’s insalubrious cousin but the former PM’s yearned-for Churchillian moment had apparently arrived. While benign unity reigned at Westminster, Rishi Sunak might still be a little peeved that the ghost of Johnson was so enthusiastically invoked: very clearly Zelensky had not come to bury Boris, but to praise him.
But his main aim – those fighter jets – soon became clear. “Two years ago, I thanked you for delicious English tea”, quipped Zelenskyy. “I will be leaving the Parliament today thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes”. At this, Westminster Hall rang out with cheers – enough to suggest that the PM will have a hard time withholding the F-35s. He concluded by handing over a Ukrainian pilot’s helmet to a delighted Lindsay Hoyle. In a Parliament so often used to pale imitations of political symbolism, it was quite astonishing to watch a true master of it at work. Over in the Commons Chamber, the wartime visit had triggered an unexpected outbreak of peace. Sunak and Starmer temporarily suspended hostilities at PMQs; vying instead to be the most supportive of Ukraine, the most opposed to the barbarous Putin. Here was a phenomenon rarer than unicorn’s breath, a parliamentary entente cordiale, a non-aggression pact. For one day, at least.