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Dominic Raab has been loyal to Boris Johnson, but his greatest service to the prime minister was accidental. The foreign secretary failed to foresee that Kabul was about to fall, and so he made two mistakes which have proved useful to No 10 in diverting anger away from its shiny black door.
Raab refused to make a phone call despite a memo from his officials saying: “We recommend the foreign secretary urgently calls the Afghan foreign minister Hanif Atmar” to discuss the evacuation of translators. And he failed to cut his holiday short until last Sunday night, after the Taliban had taken control of Kabul.
Those errors prompted Labour to demand his resignation, and The Times this morning even quotes a minister saying: “It’s a disgrace. Dom should be resigning.” But he is not going to be resigning, because his offence is not serious enough and he is providing a useful service to the prime minister by acting as a lightning conductor.
Raab should have made the call. He probably wouldn’t have got through, because the Afghan government was busy making its getaway, but he would at least have been able to say he had tried to do the right thing. The call was delegated to a junior minister and was never made, because it was “overtaken by events”, as the foreign secretary put it in his statement yesterday.
Raab should have come home from the Cretan beach earlier, not that that would have made any difference either, but again it would have looked as if he was taking the end of 20 years of British engagement in Afghanistan seriously.
As it is, Raab has offered himself up as a way for the storm of anger about the betrayal of the Afghans to earth itself safely – albeit leaving his own reputation lightly charred. He won’t be sacked, unless it is for something else, not least because Johnson must be relieved that the criticism of him has been diverted. Even so, the episode leaves Raab weakened, not just for his poor judgement but for the revelation that people he works with have such a low opinion of him that they are prepared to leak confidential official advice to the Daily Mail.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, was hasty in demanding his resignation. It devalues the currency to demand things that aren’t going to happen. As for the anonymous minister, presumably that is someone who is hoping for promotion in a reshuffle, whose view can be discounted except as evidence of restless indiscipline.
Raab is useful not just to the prime minister, but to those on both sides of the House of Commons who are angry and upset about the return of the Taliban. Instead of explaining what should have been done differently, they can take refuge in the easy option of criticising the foreign secretary for playing paddle ball on the beach while desperate Afghans invaded the runway at Kabul airport.
The problem for Johnson’s critics is that there is little of substance that the British government could have done differently. Ministers could have been alert to the possibility of the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s house of cards, but if they had started shipping out translators and diplomatic staff earlier, that might only have served to trigger the collapse earlier. It is hard to disagree with Joe Biden when he said: “The idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing – I don’t know how that happens.”
When it does happen, though, it is a dangerous moment, not just for Afghans but for the governments of US allies, who weren’t consulted and who also risk being crushed in the stampede to get out... or would, if there were a significant price to be paid in public opinion.
Johnson would be in trouble if the public were demanding that British forces go it alone in staying in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban at bay indefinitely – a mission that would probably require the entire British army. But the British people are demanding no such thing. They say that we have let the Afghans down, that the intervention was a bad idea from the start (and also, pessimistically, that British troops will probably have to go back in at some point), and that we should do our bit to accommodate refugees but not too many of them.
That is why – although I thought Keir Starmer made a good and prime-ministerial speech in the debate in the recalled parliament – the official opposition has not been able to dent Johnson in any way; and the Conservative Party sails on, eight percentage points ahead in the opinion polls.
In the end, the debate on Wednesday was essentially a discussion, and an anguished one, within the Conservative Party about how to come to terms with the failure of a foreign policy to which it had subscribed for the past 20 years. The Labour Party, only recently led by someone who helped found Stop the War in 2001 in opposition to intervention in Afghanistan, had nothing to say except that it would have managed the pullout more competently.
Thus the drama in the Commons was all Tom Tugendhat and other Conservative former soldiers saying how sad it was, and Theresa May criticising her successor, and John Baron, a Tory MP who had opposed the intervention at the time, arguing the Jeremy Corbyn position better than Corbyn himself, who still cannot give a parliamentary speech for toffee.
Indeed, the Raab embarrassment ensured that the British version of “The Fall of Kabul” featured an all-Conservative cast. The Labour Party should worry that none of its actors even had a bit part. The opposition urgently needs something to oppose the government about.