All behind you, Boris!
Compared to Putin, even Tom Tugendhat prefers Johnson
We knew that something extraordinary had happened in Parliament when Tom Tugendhat praised Boris Johnson. Readers may feel that they loathe the prime minister, or, if they follow more niche interests, that they despise the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but they should rest assured that their feelings are as nothing compared to the mutual contempt these two men have for each other.
“I pay huge tribute to my right honourable friend the prime minister,” Tugendhat, known to the Leader of the House of Commons as “Tugentwat”, said, and he sounded like he meant it.
One of the minor comforts of the last 24 hours has been the embarrassment of all the worst people in Britain
It had taken a horrific act to bring the pair together: a Russian invasion of a European country for the first time in many of our lives, an act somehow more shocking for the weeks of warning that it was coming. All day we had been watching snatched videos of explosions, of fleets of helicopters low over Ukrainian cities.
Dominic Cummings, taking time off from wondering why governments can’t just be run like Silicon Valley start-ups, had suggested that Westminster was “excited about war”, but there was very little sense of that in the chamber. While there are certainly MPs who are gung-ho about sending the SAS to faraway places, no one was under much illusion that confronting the Russians was an altogether tougher question.
At midday, Johnson had addressed the nation from Downing Street. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he does these broadcasts sitting behind a Formica table in a doorway between two state rooms. Presumably the idea of tidying his real desk is more than anyone can bear. When he quits, they’ll just have to chuck an incendiary grenade into his office and hope it does the job.
The brief lunchtime statement had been flat. There was some stuff about “the flame of freedom”, and some assurances that we were going to help, but not in a way that put ourselves at risk, and that was about it. The prime minister’s words in parliament in the evening were stronger, helped by having some meat on the bones. There were asset freezes and bank bans, economic crime legislation to be rushed through, a new hunt for Russian criminal assets hidden in Britain.
Keir Starmer welcomed it. He too had introduced a programme of sanctions, demanding that Labour MPs dissociate themselves from the Stop The War organisation, which was still busy explaining that the Russians had been forced to bomb Ukraine in protest at the invasion of Iraq. One of the minor comforts of the last 24 hours has been the embarrassment of all the worst people in Britain, from the right-wing admirers of Vladimir Putin to the left-wing people more interested in Russia’s hurt pride than Ukrainians’ lost lives.
But from the Commons there was near universal support for the government. You don’t have to admire Johnson to believe Russia’s actions are wicked. Hilary Benn quoted John Stuart Mill: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” It is straining things a bit to call the prime minister a good man, but he’s better than Putin.
Perhaps both parties know that they have not been entirely without sin with regard to Russia. Johnson conceded that attempts to work with the Russian leader had been a mistake. “We have learned a bitter lesson about how to deal with Vladimir Putin,” he said. Labour are equally aware that their last leader is still in mourning for the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his chat show for his party
Labour’s Clive Lewis offered the Ukrainians the solidarity of the people of Norwich, which will have been a great comfort. He said he supported sending weapons to the country but urged a “negotiated settlement”. Johnson was uncharacteristically magnanimous, replying that that time had passed.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith called for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Johnson pointed out this might involve shooting down Russian planes, an escalation that that not everyone is completely on board with.
The prime minister had been reluctant to go into the impact this might have on British wallets, but was pushed by Stephen Crabb. “It will mean cost, it will mean inconvenience, it will mean difficulty for us in the UK,” Johnson replied. “But that will be a price worth paying for defeating the objectives of Vladimir Putin and showing that aggression does not pay.”
Some in Britain have already made the ultimate sacrifice, as we were informed by Neale Hanvey of the Alba Party, a breakaway sect from the Scottish National Party. “I can update the House,” he said. We leaned forward. Had the Russians reached Cowdenbeath? Not exactly. “While there have been calls in this place for Alex Salmond to cease broadcasting on Russia Today, negotiations have obviously been happening in the background,” he went on. It was a thrilling moment. Had the United Nations brokered a peace deal between the TV host and the broadcaster? Was a unit of Kenyan peacekeepers going to occupy the studio? “And I can confirm that he has suspended broadcasting on Russia Today.” None of us will forget where we were when we heard the news. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his chat show for his party.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe