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It’s a dangerous thought: that the UK’s role as one of Ukraine’s strongest backers could change in the next 12 months.
But it’s one that’s sinking in, even in the wake of the new UK-Ukraine security deal signed in Kyiv just a few weeks ago.
Though the UK public have been strongly supportive of Ukraine since February 2022, as one of Britain’s top pollsters warned on the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion, the public’s “support […] is not completely limitless”.
In this heady election year for Europe, then, there are some initial signs that the UK could also be on trend for “Ukraine fatigue” as it approaches elections in 2024 or early 2025 – and Reform UK, a right-wing populist party, could be the vessel that carries it.
Fiercely anti-establishment, Reform UK is a vote sink for people who can no longer stand the Conservatives or Labour. They are now widely reported to be drawing away votes and support from the Conservatives, though there are different scenarios for how many seats they could eventually take in the UK parliament.
According to the BBC’s integrated polling tracker, the Conservatives are polling around 24%, with the Labour Party around 40-50%, and at around 10%, Reform UK. (As evidence of the desperation, look at this open letter to Rishi Sunak from a leading Conservative opinion-maker.) Equally, it’s worth taking these numbers with a pinch of salt: the opinion polls could be inflated, or politically influenced; telephone polling by Ipsos suggests that the Reform vote is around 4% currently.
But if there is a Reform party surge at the UK elections this year, it could be bad news for Ukraine. While Reform UK’s policy platform focuses on cutting back on “excess” – the cost of living crisis in the UK, government overreach, immigration or a “bloated” public sector – it does not currently have a foreign policy beyond calling for cuts to foreign aid. When asked by Byline Times about Ukraine, Reform UK said that it does not have a party position on the issue.
Evidence of how this could play out on the voter side was apparent in the public reaction to Reform UK chairman Richard Tice’s recent trip to Ukraine to deliver pick-up trucks and other aid. While Tice praised Ukraine’s resistance, arguing that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, the Russian president would make further threats against Europe, Reform UK followers berated Tice online.
They claimed Tice’s trip was evidence of him “putting Ukraine first” over the UK and couched their critique in contrast to the mainstream media’s supportive portrayal of Ukraine’s resistance against Russia.
From their perspective, Tice was “playing along” with the UK establishment, which has spent billions in tax-payer funds on Ukraine’s fight against Russia. More broadly, stopping UK support is a common refrain in the comments when presenters address Ukraine on right-wing YouTube. As one prospective Reform parliamentary candidate explained the Tice trip on Twitter: “ReformUK supports peace in Ukraine and denounces the government for sending BILLIONS of pounds worth of weapons to Ukraine. Tice isn’t handing out AKs, calm down.”
Of course, it remains unclear how far public support for withdrawing aid to Ukraine goes. Judging by the online reaction, “Ukraine” triggers a broader anti-establishment narrative in the potential Reform UK segment, but it is not a driving concern.
Still, Reform UK voters may be divided on supporting Ukraine along the twin poles of conservatism (“we must do more” and “we have to focus on ourselves”). On the one hand you have Tice, Reform’s leader, who warns of the danger Russia poses to Europe and calls to support Ukraine, and on the other, both Nigel Farage, Reform UK’s honorary president, and Laurence Fox, another major public face for this segment, argue that NATO expansion provoked Putin into the invasion. As Fox asked after Tice’s trip to Ukraine: “Shouldn’t British politicians deal with British problems?”
In the worst-case scenario – and there is still time for this to change – we are potentially looking at Reform landing a group of MPs in parliament who either subscribe to the view that the UK should withdraw financial and military support from Ukraine, or believe their voters do.
This means that the next UK Government may need to spend much more time explaining to the British public why backing Ukraine’s resistance against Russia is the right thing to do. The UK may have left the EU, but our right-wing populist moment is well in line with Europe.