Foreign misadventures: the impact of the Afghan crisis on domestic politics

As Parliament returns from its long recess, DRD Partner, Pete Bowyer, looks at how the political fortunes of the Prime Minister have changed over the Summer and asks whether foreign misadventures really count for anything domestically anymore?

If a week is a long time in politics, then a whole Summer must seem like an eternity. Just ask Boris Johnson. When the darling buds of May were only beginning to sprout forth, all seemed rosy in the garden for the Conservatives. In those halcyon days, the Tories were riding high in the polls, putting Labour to the sword in the local elections and adding more ‘Red Wall’ seats to their collection. Johnson was Lord of all he surveyed.

Crisis in Kabul

But Summer’s lease has had all too short a date for the whole country, not least the Prime Minister. The Afghanistan debacle has not only been a disaster for the Afghan people, but a humiliation for the Government in its bungling response to what was, whilst admittedly not a crisis of its own making, but one which has laid bare the limitations of the special relationship with our closest ally, the United States.

Conservative chair of the Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP suggested that the fact we had not been included in conversations with the Biden administration reflected the “demise” of the special relationship whilst former Prime Minister, Tony Blair was even more blunt: “The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours. We don’t see it yet. But we are at risk of relegation to the second division of global powers. Maybe we don’t mind. But we should at least take the decision deliberatively.”

A new Suez?

Others raised the spectre of Suez. Ellwood’s Conservative colleague, fellow Afghan veteran and chair of the equally influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP called Afghanistan “the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez” and argued that we are now “impotent in the face of US policy.” He may well be right. Like Suez, Afghanistan has been a bitter blow to the UK’s international prestige, highlighting our lack of influence over American foreign policy, and our ability to act independently of the US. 

Afghanistan has also raised serious questions, even amongst Tory colleagues, about Johnson’s ability to lead under pressure which his own blasé performance in the emergency Parliamentary debate in August did little to assuage. That’s putting it mildly. According to right-wing commentator, Andrew Neil, “Quite an appalling, halting, meandering, unconvincing, staccato performance by PM Johnson opening the Commons debate. Nobody could accuse him of rising to the occasion. He told the Commons nothing — and did it badly.”

But there are pitfalls in pushing the parallels too far. Suez famously led to the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Anthony Eden after just two years in the job, a similar timespan to Johnson, following waning support from his own backbenchers after he misled the House of Commons.

Johnson, despite his Commons performance, is far from resignation territory whatever the opposition thinks. For a start, as Neil pointed out, he told MPs little of substance so can hardly be accused of misleading them. In any case, lying to Parliament is barely a resignation issue nowadays. More to the point, he is protected by his human shields, Dominic Raab and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who are at loggerheads in the blame game for the Kabul fiasco.

That’s not to say that pressure is not beginning to pile on the PM, but in a sad reflection of our place in the world today, foreign policy disasters no longer unmake Prime Ministers. Just take Iraq*. Within two years of the invasion, Blair had romped home to a landmark third election landslide. It’s worth noting that so too did the Conservatives in 1959, a couple of years after Suez. This is the lesson Johnson will want to take from his Afghan misadventure.

Domestic concerns

If the current PM is to replicate his predecessors, he needs to bring the focus back to more domestic concerns. The ending of the furlough scheme on 30 September means that almost two million workers still covered by it face an uncertain future. The reversal of the temporary £20 weekly Universal Credit uplift, just a week later on 6 October, is going down badly, particularly in critical Red Wall seats. And the Treasury’s Three Year Spending Review due on 2 November could be brutal, with Red Wall seats again likely to bear the brunt. This is already being reflected in the polls with Labour registering a small but notable lead in its traditional seats that the Tories captured at the last Election, and they could well overtake the Conservatives nationwide in the Autumn.

What Boris is banking on to maintain his advantage is December’s Levelling Up White Paper, intended to improve living standards, grow the private sector and spread opportunity in those deprived areas without levelling down the more conservative shires. In other words, to keep the new Red Wall voters voting Conservative without alienating traditional Tories. If he can pull off that trick, he might create a new, permanent alliance of Conservative voters that could take the opposition another generation to pull apart.

Of course, that could all be de-railed by what MacMillan, Eden’s successor, said kept him awake at night, “Events, dear boy, events”. But if so, they will have to be a good deal closer to home than Afghanistan.

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*There are still a few of us who believe Iraq was far from a disaster, but that’s another story.

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Photo Credit: FT

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