The tragedy of Afghanistan may shortly prove that it is not only the mismanagement of a pandemic, or a do-as-we-say-not-do-as-we-do attitude to life, that can undermine the standing of the government and its hapless prime minister.
In the days leading up to the recall of parliament, many Conservative MPs and peers were sulphurous enough about the leadership’s attitude to this catastrophe, and Britain’s role in it. The recall itself has focused minds on what is happening in Afghanistan, and what this means for the reputation of Britain and the standing of the so-called Western alliance.
The Commons debate today promises to be highly testing for the government, as it is forced to make public pronouncements on British strategy that hitherto have seemed beyond its intellectual capability to organise. In the Lords, meanwhile, more than 100 peers quickly registered a wish to speak. In the depths of August, phone lines and video links crackled into life between Conservative politicians dismayed at the damage this has done to the already dwindling concept of British influence, and therefore to their party’s own reputation for governance.
“It’s the sheer fucking flippancy of Johnson that really appals me,” a former minister of long experience and distinction told me. “He just seems incapable of taking anything seriously. And this is bloody serious.”
Conservative rage seems to have been concentrated on three aspects of the debacle. First, there is the alarming sense of disengagement between the government and the catastrophe of Afghanistan – a catastrophe that close to 500 British soldiers gave their lives seeking to prevent. MPs are conscious that the public perceives that neither Johnson nor Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, appeared able to speak to the nation’s concerns about the fate of the people of Afghanistan, and particularly for that of its girls and women. As the wires reported girls as young as 12 being abducted and presented to Taliban fighters for their sexual gratification, Johnson was pictured cavorting with members of Britain’s successful Olympic team, and Raab was on holiday.
MPs are beginning to note Johnson’s habit of going missing in action when a serious crisis occurs – such as his being “on holiday” at Chevening in February 2020 and missing five crucial Cobra meetings as the Covid-19 pandemic began. His excuse then was that he was working on his book about Shakespeare (a book that apparently still awaits a ghost-writer and has yet to be proved more significant than fighting a pandemic). This time, his disengagement can doubtless be attributed to a profound lack of interest in or understanding of the question, and perhaps a belated realisation that it is hard to play what is happening in Afghanistan for laughs. If anybody is working to present an image of a government ready to respond to world events, they are failing abysmally.
Second, there is bemusement that Johnson appears either to have condoned the chaotic and incompetent way in which the US has overseen its own withdrawal from Afghanistan, or that he is of such low standing in the eyes of President Biden that he was never even consulted about it. Observers noted that he did not best cultivate his relationship with Biden at June’s G7 summit in Cornwall, when the president only went home in as good a frame of mind as he did because of the care taken with him by the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge. Biden, for whom this episode looks likely to have an effect similar to that of the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis for Jimmy Carter, blames Donald Trump, and Johnson’s remaining friends are already blaming the Americans.
The Americans unquestionably deserve blame; but Johnson could – and should – have taken steps with Biden to manage the process of US withdrawal. Instead, his leadership was absent again. But as a senior Tory who is a former serving Army officer told me: “It is a matter of pride in the Army that you leave your camp in immaculate order for the next regiment coming in. We have left Afghanistan in a bloody shambles. It is a humiliation and a disgrace for the Army and the country, and it has happened because of a complete absence of leadership.”
That raises the reason Conservative MPs are angry, which is the mishandling of the Army. Paradoxically, the one minister felt to have come out of this well is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, who was on the verge of breaking down in a recent interview when admitting that Afghans who had helped the Army might be left to their fate: he is felt to have displayed a genuine concern for the welfare of those for whom he is politically responsible. However, the Army’s senior command in London is considered to have made a series of mistakes over recent years that helped create an impossible position for British troops in Afghanistan. It is believed that soldiers have been doing a remarkable job in helping to hold things together despite being poorly resourced, under-equipped and under-manned – but that this is in spite of, rather than because of, the direction they have been getting from London.
Wallace is well-regarded by the Army and, unlike some of his colleagues, has expended energy and thought on the situation of the soldiers on the ground and the effect of these events on their morale. But questions are already being asked – and are likely to be asked more pointedly during the debates in the Lords and Commons – about whether in the lead-up to withdrawal of British troops (like its American comrades) more could have been done to assist the Afghan army in preparing for its resistance to the Taliban, instead of allowing it to go down, as it just has, like a house of cards.
Conservative MPs are expecting three of their colleagues in particular to roast the government over its conduct and mismanagement: Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Defence Committee, and Johnny Mercer, the former Veterans minister, are all former Army officers, and Tugendhat and Mercer are Afghanistan veterans. None has much time or regard for Johnson or his amour propre. They also speculate that Bob Stewart, the former UN commander in Bosnia and notoriously combustible, might intervene.
“Just as he is puffing his chest and blustering about British global reach,” says one ex-minister of Johnson, “our global reach is proven to be pitiful.” Years of pretence by Johnson and his predecessors that Britain could exert international diplomatic influence without the military power to back it up have been gravely exposed. Some Tories still believe the country should not be put off by the Afghanistan failure, but should carry on intervening when necessary – Lord Hague, the former foreign secretary, preached this in his latest Times column. But he and those who think like him are deluded. This is not merely because Britain has chosen to run down its Armed Forces to the point where they have become of negligible use in long-range operations; it is also because the Conservative Party chooses to have a leader incapable of taking important decisions and who is held in contempt by his peers around the West.
If anything good can come out of this horror for the Afghan people, it is that the Tories finally understand these hard truths about the “winner” they have as their leader, and realise there is more to running a country with credibility in the world than having as your front man a comedian who can pull in a few Red Wall seats.