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A passionate Parliament and a missed call pile the pressure on the Prime Minister

19 August 2021

By Matthew Williams

First Brexit, then Covid, now a crisis in Afghanistan. Boris Johnson has hardly had an easy three years since becoming Conservative leader and Prime Minister, has he?

However, things worsened for the Prime Minister yesterday when he faced a barrage of criticism from MPs in an emergency House of Commons debate. In a passionate and packed meeting, which was the first full in-person session in the House of Commons for over a year, members of all the major political parties took turns to openly criticise the Government’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis. Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson of "staggering complacency", while Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ed Davey branded the Prime Minister a "national liability" who could not "escape culpability for this disaster". Even Theresa May had a pop at her successor, and Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair and armed forces veteran Tom Tugendhat MP gave a heartfelt speech criticising his own party’s shortcomings.

As if that wasn’t difficult enough, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab MP, who was briefly left in charge of the country during the Prime Minister's hospitalisation with Covid-19 in 2020, has come under intense scrutiny for failing to make a key call to his Afghan counterpart about the evacuation of staff from Kabul. The Foreign Secretary was on holiday in Crete and chose to delegate the task to a junior minister. This – it is argued - delayed proceedings, with Labour calling Dominic Raab’s behaviour “utterly shameful” and demanding he is removed from his position.  

But Boris Johnson is by no means alone in receiving criticism for his leadership on Afghanistan. During yesterday’s debate, harsh words were expressed from both sides of the chamber towards President Joe Biden and the US withdrawal of forces. The new President also reportedly ‘missed’ a phone call from Johnson on Monday leaving him and NATO allies uninformed of US plans. When speaking publicly on Tuesday, Biden declared no regret for the US exit from Afghanistan and his comments quickly drew international criticism. The tension between the UK and US administrations is almost palpable, which puts further pressure on Johnson ahead of another leadership test – the UK’s presidency of the UN’s climate change conference, as Johnson will need US cooperation if an agreement is to be secured on climate change at COP26 happening later this year.

While the President has been accused of putting “America First”, the UK’s leadership of COP26 and how it responds to the crisis now presents an opportunity for Boris Johnson to chart a different, less isolationist course from the US’ and instead to showcase first-hand how a post-Brexit Britain can champion an ethical foreign policy. Flexibility as an independent country ought to mean that the UK can move as swiftly and generously as it wants when it comes to its offer to Afghan refugees too. While there is no appetite for large scale military engagement in Afghanistan, the UK has an opportunity to show its good intentions by wholeheartedly supporting the relocation of the country’s fleeing citizens.

All in all, it has not exactly been smooth sailing for Boris Johnson and things look likely to become increasingly challenging over the coming weeks and months as he faces his biggest foreign policy test since entering 10 Downing Street.