Boris Johnson will reach for his Churchill cosplay act – it won’t wash

The prime minister stood there in the House of Commons and tried to do his statesmanlike best, but he is deeply damaged by his own personal battle for survival

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 22 February 2022 18:14
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Boris Johnson tells MPs Roman Abramovich faces sanctions

There used to be a hushed atmosphere in the House of Commons for occasions such as these but not anymore. Questions of war and peace tend to be met with a performed reverence. All politicians are narcissists, to varying degrees, and most are desperate to feel the weight of history upon them. But whatever the moment these days, it’s already gone.

They seem to know that they cannot, among them, lay down upon the occasion the kind of gravity they would like, because they know they connived to put a clown act in charge, and they can see the consequences.

Boris Johnson stood there and tried to do his statesmanlike best, but he is deeply damaged by his own personal battle for survival. He speaks with no authority because he commands no respect.

And in a way that’s just as well. Because Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and the response from the UK government so far is to take away his Blockbuster video card and ban him from his Nintendo.

When Johnson announced the government’s official response, which is to place sanctions on a couple of banks and their Russian directors, there was an audible groan. Almost all of the banks and individuals Johnson named are already on US sanctions lists.

Look, no one’s suggesting there won’t be further sanctions. And it may be that ratcheting things up is more effective than going straight to the most draconian 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 rogue behaviour, he has never once been convinced of such a thing. It does not seem that this will do the trick.

Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, immediately pulled the plug on his new £10bn Russian gas pipeline. Well, props to him but it should never have been built in the first place. That he has had to do it now, in the middle of a crisis of energy costs that is about to hand out epic amounts of misery to families all around Europe, is yet more evidence of who might be outmanoeuvring who.

Will the sanctions even work? There are horrible statistics to be found. Sixteen per cent of Russian foreign exchange is held in dollars. It was 40 per cent five years ago. While we have been arguing about Brexit and Trump and Covid vaccines, geed on by 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 coming days and months. Johnson will be reaching for his Churchill cosplay act, and imagining it to be his life’s destiny. It was said of Victorian chimney sweeps that, after a year or so in the job, if you tried to scrub them clean the skin was already black underneath. And when you’ve played the clown for as long as Johnson has, the face paint can’t be stripped away at a moment’s notice.

He will also no doubt be hoping that as grave a situation as this might cause people to forget about such trifling matters as cakes and garden parties and suitcases of wine. But he’s wrong. He has thrown away the moral authority to lead, even in the most placid of times. It is not an authority that can be regained, purely because times are serious. If anything it is the opposite.

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