Is it possible to appear muscular while making a phone call? It is certainly the look that furiously committed political man Dominic Raab seems to have gone for, in an official picture released by his department as he attempts to retcon acting like a foreign secretary while Kabul fell.
The photo of oneself on the phone was a favourite of George W Bush, though I can never remember seeing one of his that didn’t feel worthy of the caption: “Look Daddy! They let me use a phone!” Still, let’s have a look at Raab’s take on the genre. Grasping his chair with one hand and surrounded by flags, he is leaning so ferociously into the call that he can only have honed his game demanding to know why hotel housekeeping had failed to make his towel into a swan that morning. “I couldn’t give a toss that you were busy, and no, a turtle was not ‘fine’! You can’t just phone in any quarter-arsed terrycloth origami and claim to be offering a five-star guest experience. I think you should consider your position. [PAUSE] I’m so sorry, Secretary Blinken. I just reflexively dialled 1.”
Back once again, then, to the foreign secretary, with everyone from irate Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials to diplomats to soldiers to Tory backbenchers now suggesting that Raab deserves some time off. And by some time, they mean all the time. Just take it all off from here on in. Revelations about the foreign secretary’s holiday workload/shirkload have been not so much a drip-drip as a rainfall shower and wet room.
Before all this kicked off, I’d always imagined a Raab holiday would involve touring his various lock-ups to check the contents of the fridges – but it seems that on this occasion he preferred a luxury Cretan hotel resort, described on its PR material as being for “the privileged and perceptive”. Certainly, his fellow privileged travellers were perceptive enough to note he was spending a lot of time lounging on the beach as Kabul fell. Now his officials are leaking wildly unflattering assessments of his commitment to one of the great offices of state, saying – among so much else – that the foreign secretary “refused to be contacted on basically anything”.
I think you’ll agree this means so much more coming from a man who once co-authored a book bemoaning British laziness, claiming that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”. We must take Raab’s word for it. Certainly, he seemed to spend much of this year completely off radar, only breaking cover to tweet sympathetically about natural disasters and so on. Like many Westminster watchers, I simply assumed the foreign secretary had been furloughed.
Anyway, Raab has spent a lot of time since his return in the small hours of Monday talking frantically about phone calls he HAS made, as opposed to what a lot of other people want to talk about, which is the calls he didn’t. The most significant we know about is the call to speed up evacuation for interpreters that he declined to make to his Afghan opposite number despite his staff’s recommendations, with the call apparently delegated to a junior minister. The storm over this is presumably why Raab’s Twitter feed now seems to consist entirely of tweets beginning “Spoke to @SecBlinken …” / “Spoke to Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed …” / “Spoke to @DrSJaishankar …” To which the only response has to be: yes, that’s what you’re SUPPOSED to do. What do you want – an ice-cream?
Alas, on Thursday night it emerged that even the delegated call never happened. Eye-catchingly, Raab’s inaction is now being defended by government ministers and insiders on the basis that “it wouldn’t have made a difference”. It’s an interesting defence, the notion that things we do are pointless anyway.
As for the wider Tory reaction … Raab is a man of whom breathless young Brexit activist Darren Grimes once remarked: “He’s a karate black belt that trained and fought so hard he had to have a hip replaced.” Oddly, this sort of thing doesn’t seem to be as madly impressive to those of Raab’s parliamentary colleagues who have seen action in places other than the dojo mat. Tom Tugendhat, Tobias Ellwood, Ben Wallace … hearing the impassioned interventions from various former soldiers this week, you could almost fancy you heard a note of frustration at the type of party they’ve represented while guys like Raab have been in the ascendancy.
So while the foreign secretary may yet be made a scapegoat, no one should be under any comfortable illusions that he would be anything more than that. This episode exposes far deeper problems with post-imperial, post-Brexit, post-everything UK and its place in the world, to say nothing of the calibre of people who rise to the top of its government. Just as it seemed there could be no prime minister worse than David Cameron till Theresa May came along, so it eventually seemed there could be no one worse than May until the present incumbent rocked up. Boris Johnson vacated the Foreign Office leaving a distinct impression that no one could be a more useless and lazy foreign secretary than Boris Johnson – yet that assumption has now itself fallen. The emerging trend is that the only way is down.
Looked at like that, the question is surely not whether Raab should go, but whether he is not in fact perfectly suited to his role – embodying so many of the virtues of something he’s professionally obliged to call “global Britain”. Incompetent, negligent, isolated, increasingly disliked – and defending itself on the basis that not much it does matters anyway. Far from being an aberration, Dominic Raab might be the right man for the job – an out-of-office foreign secretary for an out-of-office country.