Appearances can be deceptive. Most people had Liz Truss down as someone of mediocre talents. Not least Boris Johnson. After all, that’s why he made her foreign secretary. No prime minister wants someone too capable in a top job.
But it now turns out that Truss isn’t quite so useless after all. At the very least, she’s managed to do something that was beyond previous foreign secretaries. Unlike the Suspect, she didn’t actively make the situation worse by ensuring she got Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe banged up for longer by falsely accusing her of training journalists in Iran. And unlike Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Raab, she actually got something done. There again, she hadn’t tried to supervise operations from a sunbed while the sea was closed.
So it was an understandably triumphant Truss who came to the Commons midway through Wednesday afternoon to give a statement on the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori and the release on furlough of Morad Tahbaz. It’s not every day a foreign secretary achieves something that not only unites all sides of the house but also gives a lift to an entire country that has looked on in horror at Iran’s prolonged and illegal detention of British citizens.
Truss made sure to share the credit with some cursory drive-by thanks to colleagues and rather more heartfelt and deeper gratitude to the families and constituency MPs of the detainees who had campaigned for their release. But Liz was careful to reserve her greatest praise for herself. In her short six-minute statement, she managed to use the word I at least 15 times. A hymn to her.
It wasn’t entirely clear how Truss had managed to pull off this high-level diplomacy. Though the gist of it seemed to be that she had neither been quite so averse to repaying a legitimate £400m debt nor to having the repayment quite clearly linked to the return of hostages. Indeed she protested extremely loudly that the timing was entirely coincidental and that the Iranians had undertaken only to use the money for humanitarian purposes.
No one was entirely convinced by this, but she had earned the benefit of the doubt. It was also possible that the war in Ukraine had concentrated minds in the British government. Repaying the debt was the least we could do to get access to, and preferential rates on, Iranian oil. But no one thought to bring up the tawdry odds of realpolitik having played as big a role in the release as the irresistibly honeyed tones of Truss’s golden voice.
Then this wasn’t a day for that. With Richard Ratcliffe and his daughter Gabriella smiling and waving happily in the public gallery, this was above all a human story. The day when families would be reunited after years of campaigning and hunger strikes. As Nazanin’s MP, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq, observed, Richard had “raised the bar impossibly high for husbands everywhere”. And, for whatever bonus gains, Truss had done the right thing. She had made a difference where others had failed and for that alone she deserved her moment in the sun.
It just so happened that Raab, one of her ineffectual predecessors, was standing in at prime minister’s questions for another, the Suspect, who was off to Saudi Arabia in search of cheap oil – make that to raise human rights abuses and to agree a renewable energy deal. And, as so often when he’s called to deputise, Raab couldn’t quite hack it. His default position is one of anger. The vein in his forehead throbs under the Commons lights and he responds to everything as if he was under police interrogation.
For the past few weeks, party politics has taken rather a back seat at PMQs as both leaders have tried to put on a display of unity over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And today there were several Ukrainian MPs in the gallery to keep an eye on the British parliament. Though not for long. They all upped and left after 15 minutes. Probably just as well. Because with Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, asking the questions, things quickly turned tribal. Studs up. It wasn’t vintage Rayner. It was too careless and scattergun. But it was effective enough.
Rayner’s argument was basically this: if Johnson was the wrong person to lead the country before the war he was the wrong person to lead during it. She rattled through selected highlights from the charge sheet. The Suspect had ignored the concerns of intelligence chiefs over Evgeny Lebedev’s peerage. He had fallen over himself to cultivate the affections of oligarchs – so much so that he had lost his own security detail so he could get trashed with Evgeny in Italy. His energy policy was to hustle the world’s despots for cheap deals. He was so morally incontinent he couldn’t even obey his own lockdown rules.
The Vein had no real response. Other than to lie about the intelligence services and to dismiss the rest of Rayner’s criticism as nonsense. Boris was just a social animal. One with a pathetically needy attraction to other people’s cash. He also harked back to her support for Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Rayner looked momentarily disconcerted. Though she might have remembered that Johnson had also been a big fan of Vladimir Putin a few years back and had blamed the EU for Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Then, as Dom would later admit when asked about statistics, he isn’t the biggest fan of the truth.
For the most part, the Tory backbenchers watched on with a sense of uninterest. As if this was a Championship fixture. A few roused themselves to heckle. How dare she call out the prime minister at a time like this! Boris was now a National Treasure. We’ll be the judge of that. And a bunch of men trying to tell a woman she’s adopting the wrong tone is never a great look.