Conduct an opinion poll and I doubt 5 per cent of respondents would agree that Gavin Williamson deserves the knighthood that Boris Johnson has, in his wisdom, seen fit to award the twice-sacked, widely reviled cabinet minister.
Indeed, the accolade is about as popular as the peerage granted to Johnson’s Russian friend Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former KGB agent, in 2020. We now know, courtesy of the Sunday Times, that the Prime Minister insisted on Lebedev’s elevation despite the security services’ warning that he posed a national security risk, which was then withdrawn.
But what I find most shocking about Williamson’s gong is not that Johnson is once again rewarding a crony despite their manifest incompetence. We’re used to that. It is that he should choose this moment of global crisis to flick a figurative two fingers to the mass of decent British people when he should be doing all in his power to unite them.
We’re in the midst of a war that is going to last a long, long time and will almost certainly get a lot, lot worse. The West cannot afford to let Putin win (if the annexation of a ruined, depopulated nation full of armed insurgents can be called “winning”).
But Putin cannot afford to lose. Indeed, the worse the war goes for him — and it has started pretty badly — the more extreme the methods he is likely to deploy. He has already resorted to bombing and shelling urban centres after his ground forces failed to “liberate” them. He has a range of far more lethal conventional weapons in his arsenal that he could use. He may unleash a full-scale cyber-war against Ukraine’s Western allies. He has even threatened to use nuclear weapons, and nobody can be quite sure he’s not mad enough to act on this threat.
This was Fiona Hill, the veteran US Putin-watcher, talking to Politico last week: “If anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would. And he wants us to know that, of course.” He has already used nerve agents twice in Britain, she added: against the Skripals in Salisbury and Alexander Litvinenko in London.
Ultimately the side that shows the greater resolve, the greater staying power, will prevail. That favours authoritarianism over democracy. The West hopes sanctions will debilitate Russia economically, but that will take time – years perhaps. Putin hopes the West’s unity will crumble, and its decadent publics will tire of the war as they face increasing hardships at home.
Those hardships will be nothing compared to the terrible suffering of the Ukrainians, of course. But Britain and other European nations will nonetheless face hugely increased energy costs, rising food prices, disrupted trade and quite possibly deep recession. We will need to spend far more on defence, security and renewable or nuclear energy. There will be little, if any, cash left for levelling up.
Right now, the British people are, if anything, ahead of the government in their determination to support Ukraine and punish Putin. They’re taking it upon themselves to stage protests, send aid, cut sporting, business and cultural links, and stop Putin’s oil and gas – the commodities financing his war – being unloaded at British ports.
Johnson has done a good job coordinating international sanctions against Russia and shipping defensive weaponry to Ukraine, but the public wants much tougher action against the oligarchs and their enablers in “Londongrad”, and much greater generosity towards Ukrainian refugees — to have admitted just 50 to date shames Priti Patel, the Home Secretary.
The time will come, however, when it will be Johnson who needs to rally the people, not the other way round. He will need to convince them of the need to make sacrifices and to stay the course. He may well have to persuade them of the requirement for higher taxes, or to ration energy, or to accept shortages. He may need to assuage their fears of direct attack.
To do that the Prime Minister must set aside the bitter partisanship and polarisation of the past six years, and to cease practising the politics of division. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a golden opportunity for this. Whether they love him or loathe him, it seems most of the British public have chosen to let partygate go in the hope that Johnson can provide strong leadership at a time of great global peril.
All of which makes Williamson’s knighthood utterly perplexing. It is not important in the greater scheme of things, but it sends a dreadful message. Indeed it appears gratuitously offensive to much of the country. Even sources within Downing Street accept that it is “hard to justify” and appears “corrupt”, according to the Times.
What on Earth was Johnson thinking? Why did none of his supposedly grown-up new advisers — Steve Barclay, David Canzini, Guto Harri et al – not tell him it was a terrible idea? How could they not realise that the Prime Minister’s latest abuse of the honours system would be seen as a hugely provocative, nakedly partisan move to reward a failed crony for his past loyalty and, perhaps, to buy his future silence?
To slip the announcement out now – under the cover of war – was cynical to say the least, but did Johnson really think that people’s attention would be so distracted by Ukraine that they would not notice? And why was he even thinking about such a trivial matter during so grave a crisis?
Far from rallying the country, Johnson has managed once again to make its people feel they are being taken for fools. He has once again squandered public support and diminished his authority. For all his pretensions, for all his rhetorical flourishes, Johnson is emphatically no Churchill.