Apoca-Liz Now

How I learned to stop worrying and love the gaffs


What would it be like to be taken to war by someone most famous for funny videos? I refer of course to Liz Truss, once the best meme-generator in the Cabinet, with her outraged speeches about disgraceful cheese imports and pork markets, and now, according to the Russian government, the person most to blame for the imminent obliteration of all life on the planet.

Kremlinology isn’t what it used to be

In the early days of the Truss Foreign Secretaryship, it looked as though she was going to continue on this path, with her days focussed mainly around photo-opportunities: Liz Truss jogging across the Brooklyn Bridge; Liz Truss crossing the street in New York; Liz Truss riding in a tank. There are firstborn children in Hampstead who are less photographed than the foreign secretary.

We have now moved to a more exciting phase: Liz Truss takes the world to the edge of the nuclear precipice. If the pictures survive the coming apocalypse, they’re going to be brilliant.

The news that Truss would be responsible for any future nuclear exchange came from Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. Explaining why his boss had raised the alert status of his nuclear forces, he blamed “unacceptable statements about possible conflict situations and even confrontations and clashes between NATO and Russia,” before adding, marvellously, “I will not name the authors of these statements, although it was the British foreign secretary.”

As the world struggled to work out who he meant, it was hard to escape the thought that Kremlinology isn’t what it used to be. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when foreign policy experts studied pictures of the men on the balcony at the May Day Parade, drawing tentative conclusions from who stood where, and when they scowled. These days it’s just a guy talking hilarious nonsense to the press. Even the inadvertently revealing part, that Putin is uncomfortable with women who have big jobs, isn’t what you’d call a surprise. Among the many toxicities we associate with the current Russian regime, masculinity has long been a big player.

Back in London at the House of Commons, Truss was flavour of the day, arriving to deliver a statement on another set of sanctions. The biggest criticism she was offered was that she wasn’t going fast enough. She was not in the mood to offer false comfort. “The situation remains dire,” she said. “The UK and our allies will have to undergo some economic hardship as a result of our sanctions, but our hardships are nothing compared to those endured by the people of Ukraine.”

Labour’s David Lammy was determined to be as gung-ho, if not more. “Putin is not only facing a united west,” he said, “he is facing a truly United Kingdom.” And it felt true. When he lost his place for a few seconds, there wasn’t even a hint of a jeer from the Tory benches.

Nuclear bombs would come as a blessed relief

Which is what made Priti Patel’s appearance an hour earlier so striking. At a time when the political spectrum is united on almost every aspect of the response to the invasion of Ukraine, the Home Secretary has found a dividing line. For day the government has struggled to answer questions about whether Ukrainian refugees can come to Britain. The Home Office’s approach to all such issues is, as ever, “no, we’re full”. But ministers sense that the public might wish to provide shelter to the women, children and pensioners crossing the border from Ukraine. They’re tried suggesting that they could  pick fruit, but that didn’t go down as well as hoped.

Patel made an attempt to defuse the issue at Home Office Questions, reading out a long speech that sounded so much like a new policy that her Labour shadow, Yvette Cooper, seemed confused. It is bad parliamentary form to announce big changes in this way. “If you want to do a statement, do a statement,” shouted Kevin Brennan. Cooper called the comments “extremely unclear” and accused the government of being in “complete confusion”. The division in the chamber when it is so united on every other Ukraine-related issue partly shows bad handling, but is also a reminder that for all the briefing about Boris Johnson’s rebirth as a competent prime minister, his government is still getting stuck on the tough policy choices.

There was, however, a distraction from our troubles, in the form of Matt Hancock, who has given an endless interview about his departure from his last job. Hancock continues to be convinced that his rehabilitation is just one interview away, if only he can hit the right notes. For this one, he told us that the rules he’d broken with his office door sex were in fact “guidelines”, and that it happened “because I fell in love with somebody”. He was dressed in a black polo neck, like a weedy Milk Tray Man, as if to remind us that he’s both a lover and a fighter.

Hancock told the “Diary of a CEO” podcast he’d brought the woman who became his girlfriend into the Department of Health to work on communications. “And so we spent a lot of time together, ironically, trying to get me to be able to communicate in a more emotionally intelligent way.” The evidence of every single thing he’s said in the last six months is that this remains very much a work in progress.

If Hancock is going to keep this up, we may start yearning to more Truss provocations. In the face of another interview about his sex life, nuclear bombs would come as a blessed relief.

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