Has Putin saved Boris?

5 March 2022

9:00 AM

5 March 2022

9:00 AM

It was with some relief that I heard that Labour’s Diane Abbott was opposed to the Russian invasion of Croatia, because you cannot always tell with the far left what way they are going to swing. The Stop the War mob, along with 11 serving Labour MPs, have been anxious to exonerate Vladimir Putin and, in the usual fashion, blame the West. Their Russophilia has easily survived the end of communism and the transformation of Russia into a fascist state.

But Croatia presents additional problems for lefties – and I know many former communists who will not visit Croatia because of the role of the Ustase during the second world war: their loss, in my opinion, as it is a beautiful country full of people who wish they were Austrians, which is a noble aspiration. Truth be told, I hadn’t realised that the Russian tanks actually had ‘rolled into Croatia’, as Diane explained during another one of her always exciting media interviews. She may be the only person in Europe who has noticed this incursion, as we haven’t even heard a word of complaint from Zagreb. But that’s Diane all over – ahead of the game, prescient, acute.

Luckily for Labour, you might think, Diane is not the party’s foreign affairs spokesdimbo. That honour falls upon the great intellectual titan David Lammy. However, this might also be a worry. When asked on Celebrity (?) Mastermind where the Rose Revolution had taken place in 2003, David took the Diane Abbott route and replied with great confidence: ‘Yugoslavia.’ The fact that Yugoslavia had ceased to exist more than a decade before that date did not unnecessarily trouble Dave. Nor did the fact that the Georgian uprising took place only five or six years before his Mastermindappearance. Perhaps all Labour ministers believe that when upheavals of one kind or another take place, it must surely be in the Balkans. It is a peculiarly Edwardian view of the world, frankly. Or perhaps it is simply the case that none of them knows anything whatsoever about foreign affairs except for the fact that Israel is a vile occupying Zionist entity. It may well be that they think Israel is in the Balkans, too, perhaps tucked away between Montenegro and Albania. Why are they all so thick?

I mention this because I have noticed the polls narrowing – and they began narrowing before Putin decided to precipitate the third world war. The Labour lead at the height of the partygate saga (come on, you remember that) stretched to ten points (Opinium, 15 January). It has since come down to an average of a little above 6 per cent. Matched against this is the suspicion that the Birmingham Erdington by-election, occasioned by the death of Jack Dromey, will be won very comfortably by Labour – the Tories last won there in the year the Spanish Civil War kicked off and even since 1990 Labour have retained a 10 per cent lead.

This time Labour has chosen a sensible, likeable, hard-working local councillor, Paulette Hamilton, a child of the Windrush generation who has been at the forefront of the city’s battle against Covid (come on, you remember Covid). She should win handsomely – but the succour afforded to Keir Starmer may be brief and illusory. Starmer has handled himself with dignity over Ukraine (and in truth, Lammy hasn’t been bad either), but at times of existential national crisis – and this is an existential national crisis – the voting public tends to tilt quite sharply to the right, understanding perhaps that the right deals in outcomes rather than wishful thinking. My suspicion is that the next batch of opinion polls, in a week or so, will show a fairly dramatic levelling of support and maybe even a lead for the government.

Boris Johnson has handled himself very well (in all but one area, which I will come to). The raft of sanctions announced upon Putin’s incursion exceeded those proposed by the European Union at the time (although the EU has latterly caught up). The British population – save for a very small minority of weirdos on the far left and far right – is incensed by the invasion of Ukraine and does not show any evidence of being frit by Putin’s invocation of nuclear annihilation. It may even favour closing Ukraine’s airspace: the British do not take kindly to threats. Johnson is showing his serious side and his facility with the English language, his ability to turn a telling phrase, chimes with the public mood: that, after all, was always his selling point, both on Brexit and Covid. I am not one of those who thought partygate amounted to nothing – it was redolent of hideous arrogance and incompetence, two factors which have accompanied Johnson’s tenure in Downing Street. But the suspicion remains – and is frequently alluded to by Johnson supporters – that he gets the big stuff right and indeed he seems to be getting Ukraine right, much as he was right when he led the country, rather triumphantly, out of its Covid neurosis.

Further, while Starmer has indeed changed his party, it remains the case that Labour is still not trusted on foreign affairs. It is only two years ago that the Labour party was led by a halfwit who wished to leave Nato and there are still plenty of those patently anti-British, pro-Russian views at large in the party. There is a sense, then, in which Putin has saved Johnson, even if that is a rather myopic way of viewing the End of Times.

Strange, then, that he should misjudge the public over Ukrainian refugees. He should have been much more magnanimous. We are not an anti-immigrant country – it is just that we would like our immigration controlled and open to the most deserving, especially those with whom we share similar cultural norms and beliefs and who are unlikely to blow us all up at the first opportunity. Open the doors, Johnson: show a little mercy as well as steel.

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