“Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous,” Winston Churchill once wrote. “In war you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”

For Boris Johnson, British politics’ perennial survivor, the two increasingly go hand in hand. Facing Monday night’s vote of no confidence from Conservative MPs, the Prime Minister sought to play up his credentials on the world stage, briefing allies to take the line that a change of leadership would be a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With London having shipped over vast quantities of weaponry, ammunition and military hardware to Ukraine’s armed forces, it has cemented its place as one of the Eastern European nation’s most vociferous supporters. To create a power vacuum and fire the starting pistol on a long and divisive leadership election, Downing Street’s argument goes, would distract from this mission at the very moment Kyiv needs the most help.

At a meeting of the 1922 Committee just moments before the parliamentary party cast their ballots, Johnson reportedly told colleagues that Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyi had expressed the need for “a strong Britain” on a call that very morning. “Now is not the time,” he urged those looking to oust him over dismal polling figures and resentment over the Partygate scandal.

As the results came in, handing the Prime Minister a narrow victory with 59 per cent of the vote, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that Zelenskyi would be “punching the air” over the result. For his part, the Ukrainian leader said on Tuesday that Johnson is a “true friend” of his country, and that he was “very happy” he survived the challenge from MPs.

However, gratitude from Kyiv aside, the apparent effort to use the war to shield the embattled Conservative leader from criticism has drawn ire from across the political spectrum. “Get Ukraine’s struggle out of your mouths, Johnson loyalists,” The Guardian’s Rafael Behr wrote. The Times’ Oliver Kamm pointed out that Johnson’s backers “absolutely should not be invoking Ukraine’s just & heroic war of self-defence in their rearguard support of a damaged & distrusted Prime Minister.”

Worse still, in an excoriating letter penned ahead of the vote, attacking Johnson’s domestic policies, former Minister Jesse Norman wrote that while the Prime Minister “deserves great credit” for the handling of the crisis, “no genuinely Conservative government should have supported the ban on noisy protest – least of all when basic freedoms are facing the threat of extinction in Ukraine.”

It isn’t the first time Downing Street has been accused of political opportunism since Putin’s tanks began rolling. In April, just two days before the Metropolitan Police handed Johnson and a number of key aides fines for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules, the Prime Minister appeared in Kyiv for a surprise meeting with Zelenskyi. As the first major world leader to set foot in the capital after the start of the invasion, he won plaudits for the trip.

Others, however, argued it was a cynical ploy to associate himself with Ukraine’s valiant fight for survival. Indeed, Russian state propaganda frequently accuses Johnson of inflaming tensions to distract from his woes back home, while never quite squaring the circle with its claims the “collective West” is on an inevitable collision course with Moscow.

And yet, for all the talk among his allies of how Johnson “got the big calls right,” it is hard to imagine how he could have got them wrong when it comes to Ukraine. Supporting the former Soviet Republic’s struggle against Russia is overwhelmingly popular among the British public. A YouGov poll in April found that three quarters of more than 2,000 people surveyed backed the transfer of weapons and military equipment, including the UK-made NLAW rocket launchers and air defence systems that have undoubtedly helped Kyiv’s forces hold back their foes and frustrate Putin’s ambitions.

Crucially, the Labour Party has also been supportive of the policy, and called for more to be done to arm the Ukrainians. The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, has been as eager to be seen as tough on security issues as Johnson has, chiding Downing Street to impose tougher sanctions on Russia as well.

His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, is perhaps the only significant politician to openly oppose arming Ukraine, telling Radio Free Europe that “we could all build up more and more military stuff. It’s almost unlimited the amount of military hardware either side can build up – the war will then get worse.” While that rhetoric might have proven popular with his core supporters in groups like the Stop the War Coalition, it has failed to cut through at all with voters more generally, and Johnson has faced virtually no opposition to the lend-lease plans in Parliament.

Britain has undoubtedly done more than many other Western European nation to help Ukraine militarily, politically and financially, while countries like Germany have come under fire from Zelenskyi for dragging their feet. And yet, the UK has less to lose by doing so, given it is far less dependent on Russian oil and gas than much of the EU is. While Germany imports around half of its gas under the terms of a deal with the Kremlin, prior to sanctions, Britain bought in less than 2 per cent.

At the same time, the cost-of-living crisis, which ministers are at pains to point out is a global phenomenon, hasn’t been linked to the standoff with Russia in the way it has in, say, France. The knock-on effect of sanctions on fossil fuels and other resources became a key dividing line in Emmanuel Macron’s presidential re-election bid in April, with far-right challenger Marine Le Pen sowing fears ordinary French people would end up paying a high price. No such narrative has taken hold in the UK.

Where the public are seemingly more critical of Johnson’s record is on refugees – 41% of people sampled in a survey for the UK in a Changing Europe research group in May felt that the government was doing too little to offer Ukrainians visas to come to the UK. A Civil Service whistleblower even denounced the troubled “Homes for Ukraine” resettlement scheme as having been “designed to fail,” alleging desperate people were turned away as part of a deliberate policy to keep numbers down. Ireland, which has a population of less than a tenth of the UK, has taken in nearly 25,000 refugees, compared to the UK’s 27,000.

The idea that a change of leadership while a war is raging in Eastern Europe is a dangerous one also opens up a range of questions about the future. Given that the battle for the Donbas seems to be heading for a long and brutal stalemate, the same war could still be being fought in two years’ time when the next General Election is due. Undoubtedly, the Conservative Party would, under those circumstances, again raise the spectre of Putin rubbing his hands at a change of government, even when the opposition would likely do little that is different in practice.

Few doubt that Johnson sees Ukraine as an existential battle between Russia and the West, and between good and evil. But, as the keen biographer of Churchill he is, it is unsurprising many believe he has taken the chance to make political hay out of it as well, giving himself ammunition for his own existential fights in Westminster.