Who needs a break: do senior ministers deserve a holiday during times of crisis?

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As the world watched Kabul fall to the hands of the newly resurgent Taliban in recent weeks, a debate has arisen in Britain over the absence of senior ministers involved in managing the crisis. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has been widely criticised for delegating a crucial phone call with his Afghan counterpart to a junior minister, while he was holidaying in Crete. Such an incident is certainly not a first in British politics but forces us to once again question whether even our most senior politicians deserve a holiday during periods of turmoil.

Following the dismissal of Dominic Cummings and the resignation of Matt Hancock, Boris Johnson’s government now faces further calls for resignation, this time aimed at Mr Raab. The Foreign Secretary claimed he was “unavailable” when asked to make a telephone call about evacuating interpreters from Kabul. It has been revealed that it “was not possible” to organise such a call in time for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government. There are further reports that Mr Raab convinced the Prime Minister, who cut short his own holiday in Somerset, to allow him to continue his trip. The Times reports that top civil servants from the Home Office, Foreign Office, and Ministry of Defence also took leave at this time.

Senior ministers taking a break during periods of crisis will always ignite backlash

Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy has labelled Mr Johnson and Mr Raab’s decisions to take a holiday during the Afghan crisis “an unforgivable failure of leadership”. Indeed, as foreign military forces withdrew from Afghanistan last week, it seemed that the Foreign Secretary’s delay to discussions about evacuations may have had a significant impact on those desperately trying to flee the country. In his defence, Mr Raab claimed he had been in constant discussions with overseas ministers and his team in London “on an hour-by-hour basis” while in Crete. Moreover, the armed forces minister James Heappey admitted that a single phone call with Mr Raab would not have changed the unexpected speed of the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul, nor the speed of evacuations.

Thus, a debate ensues over whether the Foreign Secretary is worthy of rampant criticism for taking his summer holidays as turmoil unfolded in Afghanistan. This is a controversy that British politics has faced in the past: while the former Prime Minister, David Cameron travelled to Ibiza shortly after the horrific murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in May 2013. Similarly, during a crucial summit about Nazi Germany’s plans to advance through Europe during World War II, Winston Churchill invited President Roosevelt to spend a few days together at his holiday retreat in Marrakesh.

Ultimately, being in politics requires an accountability unlike that of many other professions

Senior ministers taking a break during periods of crisis will always ignite backlash, as these incidents provide the public with one more reason to believe what we want to believe: that politicians are uncaring. Yet, the recent criticism Mr Raab has faced suggests the high expectations that the public has for the government. As technology makes global communication instant and working from home the new norm, the line between work and personal life has become blurred.

Being constantly ‘switched on’ to work is a problematic expectation that certainly exists in the modern workplace, though many of us would argue unfairly so. Indeed, Mr Johnson’s cabinet ministers are highly criticised while doing their jobs, yet equally criticised for taking a week-long break from work. This raises the question of whether we expect politicians to be constantly working because we truly believe that this is an effective model for solving problems, or rather because we simply want to hold the government to a high standard.

Ultimately, being in politics requires an accountability unlike that of many other professions, whether justifiably so or not. After a sustained period of criticism over Brexit, Covid-19 and scandals within the cabinet, the Prime Minister must recognise that the public is perhaps ready now, more than ever, to pick apart the flaws of this government and hold key ministers to a high standard. Regardless of whether he deserves a holiday, Mr Raab will surely be remembered for taking time out during a crisis that cannot simply be put on pause for those affected by it.

Image: Tertius Lydgate via Palatinate Illustrations.

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