As another frighteningly right-wing, Oxford-educated, white man named Dominic is lambasted for his travel plans, I’m struck with a sense of déjà vu. In amongst one of the largest foreign policy disasters in decades, the Foreign Secretary has been the victim of relentless press coverage. Not, as one might expect, for the Government’s questionable handling of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, but rather for his choice of holiday.
While Kabul fell, Raab was on holiday in a luxury resort in Crete. Some have pointed to crucial phone calls that should have been made, but weren’t – perhaps due to his absence. Is Raab really to blame, or do the public need to cut him some slack?
The media frenzy aside, there are a number of different issues at play here.
The first, and perhaps easiest to resolve, is the issue of ministerial holidays in general. While it certainly rankles us that our leaders are often able to afford wildly extravagant holidays, it’s not exactly immoral. As long as Raab paid for his holiday himself, with money acquired legitimately (not a given in the current climate, but I digress), there’s nothing wrong with him dropping more than the median Brit makes in a year on a holiday.
The timing and location of the holiday are more open to critique. On the one hand, ministerial holidays are important. Leading the foreign policy of the United Kingdom should be a demanding job. It should be the sort of role that requires long hours, intense focus, and relentless hard work. It’s not sensible, therefore, to ask people to go without the occasional break from the day-to-day of it. But Raab could’ve delayed his holiday until the situation in Afghanistan looked less fragile, or at the very least worked around Boris Johnson’s schedule so we weren’t without our two most senior ministers at once. He could have even holidayed somewhere with easier options for rapid return. There is never a particularly good time for our second-ranking minister to be out of action, but surely now is particularly dire?
The second issue, which is separate to whether and when ministers should be able to holiday, is the optics. It looks terrible for the Tories that one of their leading figures was lounging on a beach while former interpreters for the UK are facing threats to their lives from the Taliban’s new regime. What does it say about our governing party that they’re constantly running into issues like this? Raab’s handling of this entire endeavour can, at best, be read as incompetent and, at worst, contemptuous of the British people.
The broader strategic weakness of the UK, for which Raab deserves some share of the blame, is also a major issue
Finally, there’s the situation in Kabul. While Raab’s short-term secondment to a beach in Crete has attracted much of the media’s attention, the real scandal here is the military situation. The US government’s withdrawal of troops has been hasty and negligent, and the UK has seemed powerless to protect our allies abroad. It’s understandable that, given the Americans were leaving, the UK government could not really hope to remain in Afghanistan. Again, however, the Foreign Office should have anticipated this, beginning extensive evacuations of British nationals and Afghan allies months, or even years ago. Raab has overseen this, and his role in this disaster is worthy of more ire than any ill-timed holiday.
The broader strategic weakness of the UK, for which Raab deserves some share of the blame, is also a major issue. Perhaps at one time, European allies could have swayed the US, or together offered enough military support to ease NATO forces out of Afghanistan. As it is, we have been reduced to the impotent sidecar which follows in tandem to the US. This feebleness is exacerbated by the loosening of ties with our European allies. On our own, the UK doesn’t even have the capacity to impose meaningful economic sanctions on the Taliban, let alone maintain a military presence.
Overall, Raab’s actions have been equal parts embarrassing, odd, and deplorable. It’s hard to explain why he didn’t rush home as soon as Kabul was threatened, and why he even went abroad in the face of such an obvious threat within his brief. Nevertheless, his holiday antics, however inexplainable, pale in the face of this broader foreign policy and humanitarian failure by the government. The government has a responsibility to the people of Afghanistan – since they can’t fulfil it militarily, they had better at least get their policies towards refugees and foreign aid in order. I don’t know when Raab and Johnson are each due their next holiday, but they will certainly have a lot of self-reflection to do.