It began with a bloody nose and ended as war. Boris Johnson had shambled his way into the House of Commons several minutes late looking rather the worse for wear. Sometime over the past few days his conk had fought a losing battle with a hard object – possibly the prime minister’s fist – and a large scab had formed over its bridge. It wasn’t the best of looks. Especially when combined with the large bags that have formed under his eyes. The job is taking its toll.
Though the urgent question from Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, was broadly on Britain’s relations with Russia, the real subtext was the alleged poison attack in Salisbury on Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The foreign secretary quickly cut to the chase. For legal reasons he prefaced his remarks by saying it was far too early to speculate if this had been a state-sponsored assassination attempt. But, that out the way, he made little effort to hide the fact he clearly considered this to be the most likely scenario and promised swift and severe retribution.
Not everyone was entirely convinced by the foreign secretary’s protestations of defiance. Tugendhat, Labour’s Emily Thornberry and a succession of backbenchers from both sides of the house pointed out that an investigation by BuzzFeed had come to the conclusion that, as well as burying a report into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the government had also managed to turn a blind eye to the assassination of 14 Russian nationals by the Putin regime in the UK.
Boris was outraged that nobody thought the government was taking the situation sufficiently seriously. The very fact the Russians had killed so many of their own people on UK soil was clear proof just how effective the British deterrent was. He was only sorry the number of deaths wasn’t significantly higher.
Our sanctions regimes – excluding the £30,000 the Tories were prepared to trouser in exchange for dinner with defence secretary Gavin Williamson at one of their recent fundraising balls from one of Putin’s closest allies – were hitting the Russians so hard and they had such respect for our intelligence services that they reserved all their top wet jobs for us. The reason fewer Russian nationals were getting whacked in other countries was because Putin just thought it was beneath him.
Now Boris decided to up the ante. When Conservative Jack Lopresti asked if Russian cyber-attacks should be classified as cyber-attacks or acts of war, the foreign secretary was unequivocal. “I increasingly think that we have to categorise them as acts of war,” he said. So that was it. We were now officially at war. Time was when politicians used to give the country – and the enemy – a bit of warning. Time to back down and think of the consequences before delivering a sombre address over the radio. No more. Now the foreign secretary could just do what he liked unilaterally.
Who is the Salisbury spy Sergei Skripal? – video explainer
Surprisingly, it was the Labour backbenchers who were most thrilled by this. Chris Bryant, Ben Bradshaw and Barry Sheerman were so hawkish they begged to enlist. Buoyed by this unexpected show of support, Boris continued to make up government policy on the hoof. If the Skripal assassination attempts were proved to be authorised by the Kremlin then Britain should not compete in this summer’s football World Cup.
The foreign secretary seemed unaware that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had got wind of the Skripal affair long ago and had chosen to boycott the event by not qualifying. Or that England had already put in place plans to protest by failing to progress beyond the opening rounds. Just as they had last time. It’s come to something when even the Football Association is more ahead of the game than the foreign secretary.
Within minutes of this announcement, the government was being forced into a retraction. England would still play. We just wouldn’t be sending any referees or other officials. That would show the Russians what’s what. It’s war, Jim. But not as we know it.