Saturday 18 June 2022

Getting the big calls right


The PM’s decision yesterday to cancel his attendance and speech at a conference of his own MPs and activists in Doncaster in order to visit Kyiv has not gone down well with those he was due to address. I’m not at all sure that the attendees have missed much, but I can certainly understand why Johnson might think that a city under regular attack by bombs and rockets is currently a friendlier and safer place for him than a Conservative conference. One of his northern MPs said visiting Kyiv wasn’t much of an excuse because the PM “could have gone there any time”, but that perhaps misses the importance of the timing from Johnson’s perspective. The previous day, the EU’s ‘big three’ (the leaders of the three biggest economies in the EU: Germany, France, and Italy) visited Kyiv. Pre-Brexit, the ‘big three’ would either have included the UK rather than Italy or else would have been expanded to become the ‘big four’. Either way, from Johnson’s perspective, he was in danger of being sidelined – and it would be a huge mistake to think that anything Johnson does would have been motivated by anything other than meeting Johnson’s personal need for attention and recognition.

It also helps him to turn the news coverage away from his own misdemeanours and crimes to one of the issues on which both he and his supporters are regularly claiming that ‘he got the big calls right’. It’s a claim which, notwithstanding the natural outpouring of sympathy for a European country subjected to a vicious, illegal, and unprovoked attack by a neighbour, deserves to be analysed rather more carefully than it has been.

There are, ultimately, only two ways in which wars come to an end: either one side wins a clear victory, or else a ceasefire is agreed, followed by negotiations (which may take years or even decades) aimed at signing a formal treaty. Johnson’s ‘big call’ (and that of much of what is called ‘the west’ as well) seems to be to encourage the Ukrainians to continue fighting in pursuit of complete victory whilst providing them with enough armaments only to slow the Russian advance, and denying them the key weapons which would make a victory on the battlefield possible. That is backed up by the painfully slow incremental imposition of sanctions which seem more aimed at hurting selected individuals than at rapidly destroying or undermining Russia’s ability to wage war. It’s a recipe for a lengthy war of attrition in which many more, soldiers and civilians alike, will be killed or wounded until, eventually, the losses become so great that one side or the other sues for peace. Putin is probably assuming that ‘the west’ will eventually tire of the cost and impact of underwriting Ukraine’s war effort: he may well be right; the issue is already dropping down the news schedules, to be at least partially replaced by concerns over the so-called cost of living crisis which is itself partly driven by the costs of the war. Unless ‘western’ policy (or Russian policy) changes, it’s fairly obvious which side will end up making the concessions  – the only question is over how much death and destruction it will take to get to that point. Any conclusion about whether Johnson has got this particular ‘big call’ right ought properly to be based on the extent to which the likely outcome is acceptable, and rather less on the publicity and rhetoric of the man himself.

It's a gloomy assessment, which has nothing to do with justice or fairness. There is, however, nothing particularly defeatist about asking which is the most important – the location of lines drawn on a map, or the lives of those living on either side of those lines? Stopping wars after they have started is a major challenge, but the bigger one is preventing them from starting in the first place, and investing an increasing proportion of the world’s resources in armaments doesn’t obviously seem to be the best way of promoting peace. What humanity needs is a rule-based international order accepted by all under which disputes can be resolved peacefully. One of the few certainties is that it’s too late to establish one of those once a war has started. It certainly does not help, though, when the leader of a rogue state like the UK spends so much time and effort trashing such order as does exist. Expecting others to abide by the rules in such circumstances is wholly unrealistic. ‘Getting the big calls right’ is about more than generating a few headlines which can be used as dead cats. And it’s a lot harder. Especially so for a lazy narcissist like Johnson.


dafis said...

Maybe Boris went to Ukraine to explore the possibilities for "exporting" or "diverting" those who he seems unable to ship to Rwanda ! As for priorities well there's nothing new there, it's always been about Boris, Boris and Boris, deflecting from any possible criticism and areas that really need his attention. Confirmation if any was needed that he can't tackle problems, he just jinks around them. The 2 upcoming bi-elections should send a message but he will just ignore it unless it suits his P.R programme.

Jonathan said...

This is a big one. Earlier today I listened to Chopper's (D.Telegraph) Politics, an interview with Jake Berry MP, who is chairman of the Northern Research Group). Check out the initials ie NRG which clearly echoes the E(uropean) Reform Group ie the NRG clearly aims to have a big influence in Tory circles, especially on BJ as PM. (Just for the record, I am pro-EU for Wales, and also pro-N of England because I take that part of England seriously, having worked there.) To me, listening to Jake Berry talking up the North of England was highly impressive. I got the impression that BJ, when he got to Doncaster, would be tested seriously. In the most polite but brutal way that Tories can do. Further, I think that if the Tories implemented the NRG/Jake Berry approach then the Tories would be truly One-Nation and be unbeatable in England, by sorting the North properly. For example, they want to rewrite the Barnett Formula to rebalance against London and in favour of regions. JB did mention regions of England, but any movement of this kind in London gives Wales an opening as well. (Not that I like this Welsh dependency on London, you understand) So, listening to Chopper, the big question obviously was - would BJ go to Doncaster? Sunak, MP for Richmond Yorks on top of being Chancellor, was going. Would BJ face some music? Minutes after the podcast, I read Borthlas and find out that BJ has bottled it! So have the Tories blown it in England? No. BJ's 'Big Decision' to unwind lock-down was not his decision but the result of pressure by 100 Tory MPs. I think the NRG Tory MPs will not go away, They will mark BJ's card and vote for a leader who will sort the North because their survival depends on the promise made. Here's a question. Who is moving the needle against London and pro-the rest of us: Tories or Labour. Might not be BJ but also its not Labour, is it? Or am I missing something.

dafis said...

Jonathan - Points are well made but the cynic in me inevitably reverts to a position where I see the predominant influences as "Londoncentric". Tories just love the City and most of the big "important" stuff that happens within the M25. Labour should despise the City but they have longed to have a "working" relationship with the institutions which often pull those strings that matter. Modern Labour, despite some relics/remnants of the ideological past, are now a confused "muddle of the road party". So London prevails and the rest is gesture politics no better than Boris' adherence to the green gospels, his confused warmongering, and his general reliance on fibs, bullshit and general distortion. The country - the UK - is a mess and will decline further. Secession would be a great option if we had more grounded resolute thinkers leading the Welsh effort. Sadly we are lumbered with a bunch of posturers of a different shade and that does us no good at all when trying to stimulate real interest in breaking away.