Don’t panic!

Armed with bankers rather than bombs, Dad’s Army is coming to the rescue

The storm clouds of war had gathered over Europe. An expansionist dictator threatened a smaller neighbour that Her Majesty’s Government saw as an ally. There was talk of false flag attacks, of tanks rolling and further advances.

For people in Eastern Europe, it was a nightmare. For Boris Johnson, it was the sort of big crisis he had always dreamed of leading the country through: one with a baddie and a goodie and high stakes but no horrible trade-offs or real danger to anyone at home. As he arrived in the House of Commons the prime minister seemed determined to so bear himself that, should the Daily Telegraph be published for a thousand years, it would still say that This Was His Finest Hour.

And in one sense he wasn’t bad. His main offer to the plucky Ukrainians facing Vladimir Putin’s forces was words, and words are his long suit.

From the Blessed St Jez himself, there was no word

“We must now brace ourselves,” he told the chamber, “for the next possible stages of Putin’s plan: the violent subversion of areas of eastern Ukraine by Russian operatives and their hirelings, followed by a general offensive by the nearly 200,000 Russian troops gathered on the frontiers at peak readiness to attack. If the worst happens, a European nation of 44 million men, women and children would become the target of a full-scale war of aggression waged, without a shred of justification, for the absurd and even mystical reasons that Putin described last night.”

He had spoken last night, he said, to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, “and assured him of Britain’s unwavering support”. In practice this meant sanctions against five banks and three people. It was, the prime minister assured us, “the first barrage of what we are prepared to do”, though it felt more like a party popper.

“We cannot tell what lies in the days ahead,” he said as he closed, and perhaps it was just our imagination that caught the low wail of a siren in the distance as the Heinkels were spotted over the Channel. “But we should steel ourselves for a protracted crisis. It is precisely because the stakes are so high that Putin’s venture in Ukraine must ultimately fail.”

But if the chamber was hawkish on sanctions, there was very little talk anything beyond that

Keir Starmer responded in kind. Probably the most interesting part of the session was the return of Labour as the party of NATO. After the Jeremy Corbyn years, when the party took an approach towards Putin that even a Kremlin apparatchik would find a touch fawning, its MPs were now determined to show that they were under new management. They chuntered angrily when Johnson noted “the change in the approach”, but he wasn’t wrong.

From the Blessed St Jez himself, there was no word. He arrived late for the statement and didn’t stay to the end. Those of us who had been looking forward to hearing how Putin’s actions were all Joe Biden’s fault had to settle for a tweet which spread the responsibility for the invasion evenly between Russia and NATO.

Starmer’s main complaint was that the government hadn’t done more. “We must be prepared to go further,” he said, suggesting more biting sanctions and – tricky this one for the Tories – moves to “ensure that money is not pouring into UK politics from abroad”.

But if the chamber was hawkish on sanctions, there was very little talk anything beyond that. Tobias  Ellwood, the Tory chairman of the Defence Committee, wanted to “utilise our formidable hard power”, and floated the idea of a no-fly zone, a suggestion that remained firmly on the ground. Labour’s Liam Byrne told Johnson: “We need to punch harder. If we’re not prepared to send bombers, we need to take on the bankers.” But that was about it.

In the end, the discussion involved was a lot of stirring words, but actions some distance short of rhetoric. “Our valiant Ukrainian friends,” as Johnson called them, know that we are behind them. A thousand miles behind them, to be precise.

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