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Good morning. What a year it’s been! It’s been Georgina’s and my first year here at Inside Politics, during which time we’ve had as many prime ministers as I had covered in my entire career previously. We’ve survived technical issues, sudden resignations, me sleeping through my alarm and almost every other calamity an email can go through.
In addition, I have made a number of very bad predictions. I always like to make a habit of writing about my mistakes and what I think I’ve learnt. Here is the first of two parts, covering Boris Johnson’s exit from Downing Street. The second part — on what I missed about Liz Truss’s 49-day premiership — comes tomorrow in our final Inside Politics of 2022. Let me know what you think at the address below.
Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to [email protected].
I began this year’s self-audit in a smug mood. I knew that in one of my last pieces before I left my old job and went on gardening leave, I had written that the departure in February of Munira Mirza, Boris Johnson’s longest-serving aide, was a blow that his administration couldn’t possibly recover from. Well done me, I thought.
But I had forgotten that by June of this year I had changed my mind. I thought that Johnson’s leadership had reached a point where all the evidence — the polls, local elections and the Conservative party’s performance in by-elections — pointed towards his painful rendezvous with the electorate in 2024, but that his government could drift along, purposelessly and without direction until that. As I wrote in that Inside Politics newsletter:
There is no external force forcing the prime minister to do something controversial that splits the Conservative party in parliament, and Johnson himself shows no indication or hunger to do so. This is a government that has had three anti-obesity strategies and has U-turned on everything from fracking to conversion therapy to lockdown to planning reform to energy security. If Johnson is planning to go down in some kind of death-or-glory plan to reform some part of the British state, he has kept that instinct well-hidden thus far.
Exactly a month after I wrote that, both Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak resigned from the government, and that was pretty much that for Johnson.
Why did I get it wrong? I thought that Rishi Sunak’s tax-raising Spring Statement, his bungled handling of his household’s tax affairs, and his own fine over a lockdown party had all pretty much hobbled any hope he had of winning a leadership election, and with that, Johnson’s internal opponents had lost their last and best reason to force a change of leadership.
That left most Conservative MPs with an awful choice: get rid of Johnson and they would be exchanging a scandal-ridden leader with someone from the right of the party, and whose prospects of winning the next election would have been even worse than that of Johnson. As I wrote in late June:
The fear for Conservative MPs who think “Johnsonism” is the right mix electorally is that they worry that any leadership election would see the Conservatives move away from net zero and away from public spending — and that while control of immigration and ostentatious displays of patriotic feeling are important to their party’s electoral appeal, they aren’t on their own enough to keep the Tories in office.
And of course, this all turned out to be true! Getting rid of Johnson did mean that the Tories swung away from the policy platform that got them elected in 2019 and embrace a programme that might have cost them the next election. Sunak was irretrievably tainted by the various retreats and bungled political operations around him and he could not win a leadership election. Johnson’s government was capable of drifting on until some external event hit it: but I completely failed to see that external event coming.
There are two things I think I can learn from this. The reality of government is that, however long that period of drift, at some point you are going to face some kind of painful moment. It might be a tricky vote, a sex scandal or the resignation of a major minister. It doesn’t matter: if you are too weak to weather one of those, you are doomed. The only question is when.
The other thing I failed to consider given he is now prime minister, is that I had underestimated the scale of Rishi Sunak’s own political courage. While it was Javid’s resignation that got the ball rolling, without the exit of Sunak, Johnson’s government might still be here.
Sunak’s courage is not necessarily always a good asset. That is part of why he is in a stand-off with striking nurses and ambulance drivers — a dispute that may well end in disaster for him and his government. But it is something I’ve learnt never to write off. Always be aware that Sunak is willing to take big risks.
I don’t believe there are rules in politics but there are good heuristics. Three obvious ones are “the Liberal Democrats do really well in by-elections”, “the Conservatives tend to win most general elections” and “the Labour rule book means you can generally assume the party won’t get rid of its leader”.
So to conclude, two heuristics I think I learnt from these mistakes are as follows:
1) If you are so weak that your only way to survive as leader is to drift hopelessly avoiding any form of controversy, you are almost certainly not going to survive as leader.
2) Sunak has a great deal of political courage.
Obviously I anticipate that 1) will be a more useful heuristic in the long run than 2), but I assume that both will be useful over the coming year.
Now try this
My favourite comedy film this year was Official Competition, a brilliant comedy starring Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martinez. It’s a brilliant farce that just pips two excellent horror comedies: Bodies Bodies Bodies and The Menu.
Top stories today
UK economy contracts more than expected | Output fell 0.3 per cent between the second and the third quarter, a larger fall than initial estimates of 0.2 per cent, according to data published today by the Office for National Statistics. Household disposable income continued to fall.
Royal Mail in ‘fight for its life’ | Management at Royal Mail have told staff that neither the government nor the regulator will save the struggling 506-year-old former monopoly in a last-ditch attempt to convince postal workers to end their strike action over the Christmas period.
Plan B for Horizon | Rishi Sunak has ordered accelerated work on a “proper blueprint” for a new UK global science strategy, as a stand-off over Britain’s participation in the EU’s €95bn Horizon research programme persists. “Rishi is seriously considering an alternative to Horizon,” said one ally of the prime minister.
‘Collision course’ over gender recognition law | After crunch votes last night, Scottish lawmakers are poised to pass the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill today, making it easier for transgender people legally to change their gender. Government sources tell the Times that the changes will put Westminster on “a constitutional collision course with Holyrood”.
‘Uncertainty is at an all-time high’ | UK companies are gearing up for conflicts with auditors next year as economic and political uncertainty add to the difficulty of signing off accounts and forecasting financial outlooks.
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