There used to be a cozy atmosphere in the House of Commons on occasions like this, but not anymore. Questions of war and peace tend to be met with consummate reverence. All politicians are narcissistic, to varying degrees, and most are desperate to feel the weight of history on them. But whatever the moment these days, it’s already gone.
They seem to know that they can’t, on occasion, impose the kind of gravity they would like on each other, because they know they’re conniving to put a clown in charge, and they can see the consequences of that.
Boris Johnson has stood there and tried to do his best as a statesman, but is deeply damaged by his own personal battle for survival. He speaks without authority because he commands no respect.
And in a way that’s just as well. Because Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and the UK government’s response so far is to take his Blockbuster video card away from him and ban it from his Nintendo.
When Johnson announced the government’s official response, which is to impose sanctions on a few banks and their Russian directors, there was an audible whimper. Almost all of Johnson’s banks and appointees are already on US sanctions lists.
Look, no one’s suggesting there won’t be more sanctions. And it may be that escalating things is more effective than going straight to the most drastic level possible. But there is only one purpose to the initial action, and that is to convince Putin that he would be wrong to push his luck. In a decade and a half of entirely thuggish behavior, he was never convinced of such a thing. It doesn’t look like that will do.
Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, immediately disconnected his new £10 billion Russian gas pipeline. Well, props for him, but he should never have been built in the first place. That he had to do it now, in the midst of an energy cost crisis that is poised to dish out epic amounts of misery to families across Europe, is further evidence of who could outsmart whom.
Will the sanctions even work? There are horrible statistics to be found. Sixteen percent of Russian currency is held in dollars. It was 40% five years ago. As we argued over Brexit and the coveted Trump and Covid vaccines of Russian troll farms, Putin has been preparing for this moment for a very long time.
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Of course, there will be escalations in the days and months to come. Johnson will reach for his Churchill cosplay act and imagine that this is his life’s destiny. It was said of Victorian chimney sweeps that after about a year of work, if you tried to clean them, the skin was already black underneath. And when you’ve been clowning around for as long as Johnson, face paint can’t be removed anytime soon.
He also no doubt hopes that a situation as serious as this could cause people to forget such insignificant things as cakes, garden parties and suitcases of wine. But he is wrong. He threw away the moral authority to lead, even in the quietest of times. It is not an authority that can be won back just because times are tough. If anything, it’s the opposite.