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Point man

Never trust a man with a six-point plan

It was Ukraine day in Parliament, again. How we long for those happy times when we all worried we might be killed by an invisible virus, instead of an accidental nuclear war. Although there is cross-party agreement on the outcomes Britain wants to see from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was some nasty scrapping about the route we’re taking to get there.

Like any military conflict, there was the war on the ground — muddy, messy, brutal — and the war in the air — lofty, vaguely covering huge areas, and occasionally unexpectedly brought down to earth.

The air war was being fought by the prime minister, who on Sunday announced a “Six-point plan to support Ukraine”. There are any number of criticisms that could be offered of his strategy, which wasn’t so much wrong as just a list of stuff already happening which must have taken several minutes to draw up. The Poles, for example, who have taken in a million refugees in the past fortnight, will be very excited to hear that Britain is going to “mobilise an international humanitarian coalition”. But the biggest is this: why six points?

You are allowed one, three, five, seven or ten points. Definitely not six

There are strict rules about the number of points a politician can have in a plan. You are allowed one, three, five, seven or ten. Not four, not nine, and definitely not six. When Johnson was running for London Mayor, he had an eleven-point plan, which really should have been a warning to us that he wasn’t to be trusted.

Other opinions are available, of course. One Sunday newspaper reported that the crisis in Ukraine had transformed the prime minister into a “burgeoning international statesman” — well, we all struggle with our waistlines after we pass 40 — and cited as evidence the fact that he holds his meetings in a room that contains a portrait of Margaret Thatcher. I had a Blade Runner poster on my wall at university, but no one ever confused me with Harrison Ford.

On Monday Johnson was playing global leader in Downing Street, hosting Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. Both men are tall and clean-cut, and both are survivors in office now on their third British prime minister, a man who is short and scruffy and could yet take the record for the briefest time in the job this century. As the press conference camera moved from Trudeau to Johnson it had to drop noticeably, in a way that if I were him would have me asking for a refund of the £2.6 million the room cost. Still, they were all nice to each other, even if Trudeau did open by tossing out that he’d just sanctioned another 10 Russians, something that Johnson is still struggling to do.

Over in the trenches in Parliament, it was nastier. Liz Truss was making her first appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee since her appointment last September, something that chairman Tom Tugendhat made a point of noting. Labour’s Chris Bryant wanted to know why the issue of visas for refugees was so confused. “It’s really a matter for the Home Secretary,” replied Truss, helpfully.

“Passing the buck really doesn’t work as a government minister,” Bryant replied.

Truss attempted to have her revenge later, when they got onto the question of sanctioning oligarchs. Because of the unique way Britain is run, there is a lot more Russian money in London to crack down on, but Truss conceded that she wasn’t able to target oligarchs in the way that she’d like to, or indeed in the way that Johnson sometimes claims he already has. It was Labour’s fault, she explained, for making the sanctions law more cumbersome when it went through the House of Lords. Bryant himself had welcomed it, she added, reading from her notes. “The legislation in the EU and Canada and the US is less onerous than our legislation,” she said, and then read out comments from Bryant at the time welcoming this. Score one for Truss.

Or not. “What you’ve just read out is not in Hansard,” Bryant said. “I didn’t speak in the debate.”

“I’ve been told you did,” Truss said, gesturing airily behind her.

“I’ve got it here,” Bryant said, and began to read out all the speakers in the debate from his iPad.

“Can we check that?” Truss asked her aides. On her evidence went, but the tension in the room was in the row behind her, as her officials frantically scrolled on their phones. They conferred, and one began scribbling a note, which was slid in front of her. “I have now heard from my officials that Mr Bryant did welcome the bill, but not the amendments, so I want to correct the record,” she said. “I’m sorry. It was written wrongly in my notes.”

Bryant looked pleased, Truss less happy. Given the current sanctions regime, it is unlikely the Foreign Secretary can send any of her staff to Siberia, but perhaps there’s a post on Ascension Island waiting for whoever drafted that bit of her briefing.

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