ON breaking up for the summer the talk of the steamie that is the Sunday politics shows centred on Covid-19, climate change, and the tug of war over indyref2.
It was back to business as usual yesterday, but with the added matter of Afghanistan in the mix. An observer might think no-one, save for the production teams and a certain Foreign Secretary (of whom more later), had been away at all.
Minister for the Sunday shows was Nadhim Zahawi, who in his day job is Vaccines Minister. This should have left him well-placed to answer one of the key questions of the day: should healthy 12-15 year olds be given the jab? But first on Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday, and on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 later, Mr Zahawi stuck to the UK Government line that this would be a decision for the chief medical officers of the four nations.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan featured heavily in the Sunday shows, with Marr’s team deserving a mention in dispatches for booking General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff.
Via the power of playback, Marr began by reminding viewers what Gen Sir Nick had said in an interview in July. Given how fast the Taliban were moving, Marr had asked, was there a chance they were going to take over the entire country?
“It’s too early to say,” Sir Nick had said. “But what I would say is that the Afghan government is pursuing a very sensible strategy of consolidation. They are not going to fight for every rural area because they don’t need to.”
Fast forward to today, a garden in Wiltshire and a blunt question from Marr to the General: how did you get it so wrong?
“I think everybody got it wrong is the straight answer … Even the Taliban didn’t expect things to change as quickly as they did,” he said.
Gen Sir Nick said the Taliban were suffering from what the military called “catastrophic success”.
“They were not expecting to be in government as quickly as they have appeared and the reality is they are trying to find their feet.
“We need to wait and see how this happens and recognise that they’re probably going to need a bit of help in order to run a modern state effectively. If they behave perhaps they will get some help.”
On Trevor Phillips on Sunday, Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, dismissed any notion that the Taliban of 2021 had somehow changed. “They’re still as brutal and vicious as they were.”
Also on the show, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said the UK Government had “no choice but to have a dialogue with the Taliban” to set up safe passage for people trying to leave the country.
“That’s different from diplomatic recognition – it would be far too premature to acknowledge (that), but dialogue is absolutely essential, and the Government is right to have started that, belatedly.”
Marr is fond of having an arts interlude to break up the political to and fro. Some of the items are more successful than others, depending, ironically, on how political the guest turns out to be. In Dame Hilary Mantel, Marr won a watch, as we say in these parts.
It turned out to be a headline-making weekend for the author of the Wolf Hall trilogy. On Saturday, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the Derbyshire-born novelist said she was “ashamed” at the UK Government’s treatment of asylum seekers and would be taking up Irish citizenship.
Asked in the same interview about Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the double Booker winner said: “I have met him a number of times, in different settings. I agree he is a complex personality, but this much is simple – he should not be in public life. And I am sure he knows it.”
Mantel was being interviewed by Marr to mark the stage version of The Mirror and the Light opening in London at the end of September. (The TV version will appear in 2023.)
Talk turned naturally to the subject of Mantel’s modern classic, Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who became one of the most powerful men in the realm as adviser to Henry VIII.
Comparing Cromwell to Dominic Cummings, the former chief aide to Boris Johnson, she said: “Dominic Cummings created a picture of himself as an outsider which was intrinsic to his self-created function.
“What Cromwell did was he conquered the hierarchy. He understood where real power lay as opposed to status and he worked his own way through the system, in a way that shouldn’t have been possible in that very hierarchical world.”
Ben Miles, who plays Cromwell in the stage versions, said there were “parallels” between the two men.
“There is an element of a man from outside, from perhaps a lower status background and origin, scaling the heights, as it were, and becoming indispensable.”
Dame Hilary said Cromwell was an exceptional politician.
“He was the kind of man who was quite rare in any era, perhaps in any walk of life, because he was someone who was very much a big picture man, but he knew how to take care of all the details as well.”
Mentioning no name, she added: “He wouldn’t have gone on holiday during an international crisis.”
It did not take the analytical genius of Cromwell to work out who Dame Hilary had in mind.