Toby Neal: Boris Johnson and the chamber of horrors

Boris Johnson stood before the House holding the baby and wringing his hands. An unhappy combination.

Boris Johnson opens the Commons debate on Afghanistan
Boris Johnson opens the Commons debate on Afghanistan

"It is what it is," he shrugged. That was more or less exactly what he said.

Success has many loving parents. As he faced baying, angry, anguished, sorrowful, MPs in the first non-socially distanced chamber for many months, the Prime Minister was in the company of an orphan.

A bit like Iraq really, which was overwhelmingly backed by MPs who then ran for cover when things went wrong. But there was an excuse for that, because they were misled by the great showman Tony Blair and dodgy intelligence. They could claim afterwards, and did, that they didn't know what they were voting for.

In Afghanistan they did know what they were voting for.

The response of many to their collective culpability for the Afghan disaster in the recalled Commons this week was to embark on a compassion auction, outbidding each other in how many refugees they would take in – the more, the more caring they thought they would look.

It was an occasion made for Sir Keir Starmer and his Prime Minister-in-waiting persona.

Jeremy Corbyn would have gone over the top and put backs up all round, including among MPs sitting on the green benches behind him.

Sir Keir held the Government to critical account in a measured and reasonable way, took plenty of interventions, sidestepped invitations from Tory MPs to put his foot in it, and gave a speech which many Tory MPs would have agreed with.

The lack of planning was unforgivable and the Prime Minister bore a heavy responsibility. Cutting the development budget was shortsighted, small minded, and a threat to security.

Having risen to the occasion, Sir Keir then began to fall to the occasion, as he started to get silly. Boris hadn't visited Afghanistan since 2018, he charged. And he had "gone on holiday as the Taliban arrived at the gates of Kabul".

"I wouldn't go on holiday as Kabul was falling," he said, to Tory jeers.

"We talk of global Britain. Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?" asked a hawkish Theresa May.

In an overlong tub-thumping sermon with much of his characteristic fulmination and rise and fall, darkness and light – mostly darkness – the Reverend Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader of the Scottish Myopics (he isn't a Reverend but he should be) preachily championed the cause of refugees, but was asked by a Tory backbencher why Scotland wasn't doing more to take them in.

This seemed to fluster him. "Isle of Bute!" an SNP colleague sitting behind him prompted. (Yes, Isle of Bute is part of the resettlement scheme, along with Glasgow).

But like a boxer still standing but swaying and staggering after taking one on the chin, Mr Blackford was clearly dazed.

"Perhaps a bit of dignity from the opposition benches wouldn't go amiss," he said in his confused state. Yes, he really did say that.

It was not a good session for Joe Biden, the American president who slept through the fall of Kabul.

As Tom Tugendhat spoke with obvious feeling, the House fell silent. Unlike almost all the rest of them, he served in Afghanistan.

Without naming him directly, Tugenhat described as "shameful" the comments of Biden claiming that the Afghans Tugendhat had fought alongside had run away.

"Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have."

Some MPs, in a breach of House protocol, clapped as he sat down.

Lastly we can appreciate that events in Afghanistan have borne out the thesis of the late, great, journalist Frank Johnson.

He argued that, far from August being a slow news month and the news "silly season," it is the month where critical events happen, ranging from the start of the First World War, the final preparations for the beginning of the Second World War, the dropping of the atomic bombs, the invasion of Kuwait, and to the death of Diana.

It is also a month when the Commons is always on holiday.

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