In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, a schoolboy argues that Winston Churchill only became prime minister because Lord Halifax missed a key meeting to go to the dentist, remarking: “If Halifax had had better teeth we might have lost the war.” I wonder if the historian Anthony Seldon and the media consultant Craig Oliver had those words in mind when writing their new radio play. Red Lines purports to tell the inside story of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attack on the rebel-held Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, in August 2013 – or rather, of David Cameron’s failed attempt to convince the British parliament to back a military response. It draws a direct line from Cameron’s defeat in the Commons to the rise of American isolationism and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Oliver (played by Dead Ringers’ Jon Culshaw, who also does a spectacular impression of William Hague) knows what he’s talking about – he was, after all, Cameron’s director of politics and communications. But that doesn’t mean he knows how to write a radio play. Much of the dialogue is laughable: a super-cool Barack Obama addresses Cameron with “Hey brother”, while Vladimir Putin tells the PM, “I’m sending you a big hug.” We’re barely two minutes in when we get a clunky mention of the title (“a proportionate response when red lines are crossed”). The only moment of wit is when David Davis is called a wanker.
[See also: The Rest is History is breathtaking in its scope]
Much worse is the unsubtle message. Cameron just wants to do the right thing, but is hindered by the political machinations of Ed Miliband and the shadow of the Iraq War. Should we miss the point, Oliver (the character) helpfully explains that MPs oppose a military strike on Damascus because “they think it’s 2003”. You can see what this is trying to do, but the play’s heavy-handedness undermines its credibility. And while it may be useful to view Putin’s aggression in the context of the West’s reluctance to act decisively in Syria, pinning the crisis in Ukraine today on squeamish MPs in 2013 feels as simplistic as suggesting the Second World War was won on a dental appointment.
BBC Radio 4, available on BBC Sounds
This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato