Taxi for Dominic Raab? The Foreign Secretary is under fire after revelations in today’s Daily Mail (19 August) that, despite advice from his officials that a call to his Afghan opposite number Hanif Atmar needed to come from him, the call was passed down the food chain to Zac Goldsmith, the junior minister on duty, while Raab holidayed in Crete last week.
The Mail is calling on Raab to resign over his failure to intervene to help airlift Afghan interpreters out of the country, as are Labour and the Liberal Democrats. And while Conservative MPs aren’t quite ready to join in these calls to resign, they aren’t far off. Both Raab and Boris Johnson’s appearances in parliament yesterday disappointed and irritated Tories.
This is bad news for Raab, because while Johnson’s political appeal among Tory MPs has never been based on the idea that he is the best administrator, but rather on his electability, Raab’s stock among MPs has always been thanks to him being seen as a capable minister.
But the biggest problem for the Foreign Secretary is that he has become the scapegoat for the Afghanistan debacle in the minds of many Conservative MPs. Because, while you can make any number of reasonable political arguments about why choosing to stay on holiday is a bad look for Raab, as I write in my column this week, it made no actual difference on the ground in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan operation was always American-led, and the British military presence there essentially wound down in 2014. There is no meaningful prospect, from a logistical perspective, of the United Kingdom being able to fill the void left by the Americans, whether alone or with our European allies. This is not least because, in addition to a decade of defence spending cuts, France and Italy are still heavily involved in Libya, and much of Europe, including the UK, has a committed and active presence in the Western Sahel. That’s before you broach the matter of whether there would be any prospect of voters in Europe supporting an indefinite commitment in Afghanistan.
But Johnson was unable to articulate any of that in the House of Commons yesterday, in part because none of that is really the product of a coherent UK strategy.
We are closely involved with European defence and foreign policy in Africa and in eastern Europe because we’ve decided that our European interests are best served by heavy alignment with EU countries. But our approach to the Northern Ireland protocol means that the EU-UK relationship will be heavily antagonistic, and that in public, ministers have to downplay the extent to which Britain cooperates with Europe on defence and foreign policy.
Our China policy is that we should be at loggerheads with Beijing over Hong Kong while further ceding ground to its Belt and Road Initiative by cutting foreign aid. Our US policy is based on ensuring proximity to Washington, just not in the case of Northern Ireland.
The spin used to be that UK foreign policy is one of careful pragmatism and issue-by-issue diplomacy. The reality is that we lack strategy and direction. Raab isn’t the reason for that, but he may yet end up being the scapegoat.