“Will this do?”

Johnson’s statement on Afghanistan was, as ever, a masterpiece of bare adequacy

The House of Commons was full, for the first time since last March. Members of Parliament had been brought back from their holidays, from West Country campsites and from Greek resorts, in a repatriation operation that puts the Foreign Office to shame.

They were there to debate Afghanistan, a far-away country of which it turns out that we know even less than we thought. It was only last month that Boris Johnson was assuring MPs that “there is no military path to victory for the Taliban”, although we now know that path was straight along the road to Kabul, as fast as their trucks could carry them.

Now Johnson was back to explain that things had turned out to be a bit more complicated than he thought. Or perhaps a bit simpler: we’ve gone, they’re back. Parliament was getting eight hours to discuss this, although it was too late to do very much about it. It wasn’t so much shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted as holding a long discussion about the history of equine care as the stallion in question disappeared over the horizon.

Only the DUP, who like the Tories see illness as moral failure, were a lone island of uncovered faces

Still, the atmosphere was jolly. Many of these MPs haven’t seen each other in over a year. There was a first-day-of-term feel to things. With Parliament’s Covid restrictions lapsed, the Conservatives were wedged in together in the small, windowless chamber, barely a facemask in sight. The government’s instructions are still to wear masks in crowded places, but the Conservatives view Covid as some sort of socialist conspiracy that will go away if they ignore it. Or maybe they just feel that rules are for the little people.

Labour MPs had at least nodded to social distancing, sitting about 18 inches apart from each other. This is, admittedly, easier when there aren’t very many of you. The opposition benches were a sea of masks. Only the Democratic Unionists, who like the Tories see illness as a sign of moral failure, were a lone island of uncovered faces.

Johnson’s statement was, as ever, a masterpiece of bare adequacy. It eloquently just about dealt with the matter in question, magisterially pretty much covering the bases. The speechwriters, one sensed, must have been working on the words late into the previous afternoon. They had gone through as many as one draft as they tried to come up with something that, if it didn’t deal with every complex nuance of the Afghan tragedy, at least asked the question that Johnson lives by: “Will this do?”

The situation in Afghanistan was a “concern”, the prime minister explained, with what might, in another context, have been a brilliantly comic understatement. Over the past 20 years, the British had worked for a better future for the people of Afghanistan. “Some of this progress,” the prime minister said, “is fragile”, which is certainly one way of putting it.

What had gone wrong with our intelligence services, several people asked, that they had so comprehensively failed to see this coming? Be fair, replied Johnson, even the Taliban had been surprised by the speed of their own advance.

For all the hand-wringing, what was missing in the debate was any sense of an alternative plan

But in fact, he added, it was “not true to say that the UK government were unprepared or did not foresee this, because it was certainly part of our planning.” He didn’t say whether the plans had actually mentioned desperate Afghans clinging to the sides of planes as they took off.

Theresa May asked when Johnson had first spoken to NATO about putting together an alternative coalition in the country after the US departure. Angela Eagle wanted to know why, if all this had been foreseen, both the prime minister and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, had been on holiday when it happened. Johnson looked exasperated, surrounded by these know-it-all women with their clever ideas about preparing for problems in advance. Next to him Raab, whose face had already been stony, was now like granite.

Johnson has longed to get back to a packed chamber, probably believing that full Conservative benches behind him would help him to face Keir Starmer. But on Wednesday there was as much hostile fire coming from his own side as from the opposition. The Labour leader accused the government of “staggering complacency” and the prime minister’s judgement of having been “appalling”, and there was not a murmur of disagreement from Conservative MPs. They asked more hostile questions of their own leader than they did of Starmer.

For all the hand-wringing, what was missing in the debate was any sense of an alternative plan. Layla Moran for the Lib Dems called for a “safe corridor” to be created in Afghanistan to allow refugees to make their way to the border, but didn’t elaborate on how this might be achieved.

Finally, just under two hours in, we heard from someone who had fought in Afghanistan. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, who was there for four years, gave the speech of the day. He was heard in silence, or rather, in something deeper than silence: you could actually hear them listening. MPs who had nipped out during SNP leader Ian Blackford’s previous long speech — to go to the toilet perhaps, or watch the extended cut of The Lord of the Rings — hurried back in.

Tugendhat spoke about the “anger, grief and rage” he and other veterans had felt in recent days. He spoke about the need for patience in peace-building. He described, to murmurs of support, Joe Biden’s attack on Afghan troops as “shameful”. Johnson, who loathes Tugendhat as another try-hard know-it-all, was carefully avoiding looking at him, but nodded at that point, perhaps involuntarily.

He closed describing the moment an Afghan man had carried a dead child into his base, begging for help. “There was nothing we could do. It was over. That is what defeat looks like; it is when you no longer have the choice of how to help. This does not need to be defeat, but at the moment it damn well feels like it.”

Johnson chose that moment to flee the chamber. He had done, as ever, barely enough. Will that do?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover