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Sniffer dogs, extra police, the bustle of last-minute preparations for a VIP visitor, stirring Ukrainian music sounding from Parliament Square in place of the usual satirical pop songs broadcast by our own unwearying protesters, and an altogether more sombre atmosphere for our statesmen at PMQs.
Keir Starmer spoke of being honoured to be addressed today by President Zelensky, suggested “we’ve always been at our best when we stand up to tyrannical oppression”, pointed out that “Labour helped to found Nato” (satirical noises from the Tory benches as he declared how hawkish Labour now is), and declared that we “stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us” as we support Ukraine’s fight.
One thought for a moment of Rishi Sunak standing on Boris Johnson’s shoulders.
Stephen Flynn, for the Scottish Nationalists, had Sunak’s immediate predecessor in mind. He observed that Liz Truss had “said she did not regret her time in office”, and asked: “Does the Prime Minister regret her time in office?”
“Mr Speaker,” Sunak replied with diplomatic smile, “I’m grateful to all my predecessors for the contribution they make to public life.”
Flynn tried again: “Will he apologise for her?”
Sunak did not apologise, but distanced himself: “On the first day that I took office I said that mistakes had been made.”
The press gallery emptied as people headed for Westminster Hall, which was packed. Within a few minutes – one of the merits of an event put on at short notice is that there is generally less hanging about – Zelensky entered, escorted by the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, the Serjeant at Arms, Ugbana Oyet, and other dignitaries.
Zelensky gazed down from the steps at the far end of the hall, bearded, modest, smiling, above him the mighty hammerbeam roof, behind him the sun pouring through the great south window, gilding his head and shoulders, leaving dark bars of light and shade on the steps.
Sir Lindsay recalled receiving Zelensky on 8th October 2020, a more peaceful time, to English afternoon tea with Chorley cakes; and how Zelensky 13 days after the start of the war addressed the Commons by video link.
After another long ovation, Zelensky began by speaking of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, “all the lands that have been the home of brave souls since England came into existence,” and said he himself spoke “on behalf of the brave who are now in the trenches…who fight to retake Ukraine’s borders.”
How graceful to his hosts this way of seeing things, touching on past British heroes before he came to the heroes of the present day.
He spoke too “on behalf of every father and every mother who are waiting for their brave sons and brave daughters home from the war”. Hard to repress a tear at the thought of that wait.
A passage about visiting, on an earlier occasion, Churchill’s War Rooms, being invited by a guide to sit in Churchill’s arm chair, and being asked how he felt.
Only now did Zelensky know the answer: “How bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory.”
Always that confidence in victory. “I thank you for your bravery,” he said, indicating Boris Johnson, a blond figure in the crowd. Britain was “among the very few” who helped Ukraine before the large-scale fighting began. “Thank you Rishi,” he went on.
And he was about to have the honour of meeting the King:
“The King is an Air Force pilot, and in Ukraine today every Air Force pilot is a King.”
Prolonged applause for this felicitous phrase. He presented a Ukrainian Air Force pilot’s helmet to Sir Lindsay, bearing a hand-written inscription:
“We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.”
He had already thanked the Speaker “for delicious English tea”. Now he was “thanking you all in advance for powerful English planes”.
A brilliant plea for warplanes delivered on a brilliant winter’s day in February 2023.