During one of the Theresa May years – I forget which – one of Westminster’s finest journalists returned to work after 12 months of maternity leave and, on seeing her in the canteen I said by way of sarcastic small talk, “Welcome back. You haven’t missed much.”
“You’re right. I haven’t,” she said, in all seriousness.
And she was, it turned out, absolutely correct. There had been all manner of drama, of late-night votes, of supposedly set-piece speeches, be they in Lancaster House, Mansion House, or (for some mad reason) Florence. There had been dramatic snubs at EU summits, there’d been Chequers deals, “Malthouse Compromises”, renegotiated backstops; but in the end, absolutely nothing had happened. Actual history had advanced not one inch. Nothing, as someone once said, had changed.
And at the end of what in the moment feels like a fairly lively year, has anything, really, changed in 2022? Obviously there have been dramatic changes in personnel. New records have been set for incompetence and general uselessness. The box-set drama has rarely been more gripping, but what has actually happened, within the corridors of power, that has made any notable difference to anyone?
The biggest is that the Conservatives look certain to lose the next election, having begun the year, or certainly having gone into December 2021 (before the Partygate revelations began), looking almost certain to win it. It is a mess entirely of their own making.
In 2019, large numbers of people held their noses and voted to make leader a man so many of them knew to be hopelessly unsuitable for leadership, so lacking in so many of what are now the basic skills of being prime minister. Boris Johnson is by no means, the most sociopathically selfish and morally decadent prime minister the country has ever had, but unfortunately for him, merely putting Jacob Rees-Mogg in the cabinet does not make it the 19th century again. The world has changed.
And in the summer of 2022, they did it again, many of them because Boris Johnson told them to, and the results were inevitable. They were best summed up by the backbench MP Charles Walker, in a somewhat seismic clip on the 10 o’clock news: “Those people who put Liz Truss in No. 10: I hope it was worth it,” he said. “I hope it was worth it for the ministerial red box, I hope it was worth it to sit round the cabinet table, because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary.”
Arguably there is no clearer window into the increasingly unconventional nature of British politics than a Whatsapp message I happened to receive from a friend at this moment that said simply: “Is that the milk guy?” To which the answer is yes. Mr Walker’s only previous moment in the big time was when he decided, not very long before, to carry a pint of milk with him everywhere he went for the rest of his life as a protest against something nobody ever really quite understood. He gave up after about an hour.
For normal people, living normal lives and not paying unusually close attention to the rolling Westminster soap opera, 2022 has still been seismic. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has jacked up energy prices to levels that are not manageable for the vast majority, and the required government bailout is too expensive to be sustained. It is most certainly a global problem, but it is a global problem to which the British are – as usual – especially exposed.
At the start of the war in Ukraine, Boris Johnson led the way in calls for export bans on Russian gas. It was easy for him to do so because this country uses so much less of it than others in Europe. We have our own gas supplies, a pipeline with Norway and an impressive renewable electricity sector. Yet despite our comparable lack of exposure to the root cause of the problem, we have still conspired to suffer the most, mainly through decades of underinvestment in nuclear power and the selling off of gas storage infrastructure.
Any government, of any kind, would have had no choice but to directly intervene in and subsidise the energy market. Johnson would certainly have done so had he not already been on his way out by the time such an intervention was necessary.
His successor, Liz Truss, also felt like she had no option but to intervene with a fairly enormous subsidy, lasting for 18 months. But she also failed to work out that she couldn’t do this at the same time as keeping her leadership election promise to cut taxes. So she did both, instantly shredding her reputation, and that of her party’s too. She, and Kwasi Kwarteng, allowed for rising interest rates and rising mortgage repayments to be associated with their own incompetence, consigning herself to history in an instant.
It is arguably possible that, without the war in Ukraine, and without the enormous energy subsidy, the markets might have coped with most of the emergency mini-Budget, and Truss and Trussonomics might have survived for a little while longer. It may even have yielded higher growth in some areas, given the chance. But it did not.
Before 2022, British politics was already on a collision course with reality. Pretending the economic harms of Brexit were not real was far easier during the Covid years, but the mist was starting to fall away. Johnson, Truss, Rishi Sunak – all are deniers of reality, but Johnson is by far the most skilled (it was Truss’s inability to convince herself reality was not real that led her to campaign for Remain in the first place).
Johnson always pretended to himself and others that Brexit would be great, rendering himself ridiculous. Truss was the most ridiculous, inventing something called the “anti-growth coalition” but at the same time denying that the one thing that would most boost growth – rejoining the EU single market – could possibly be done. Sunak, for his part, has always been seen as some kind of intellectual economic ballast for the idea of Brexit, given that he has a reasonably shortlived financial background but also supports it.
But he has never actually provided any intellectual ballast for it. He has never provided a single argument to counter the obvious truth – that it has made the country much poorer and it will continue to do so.
In the next couple of years, he will find it ever harder to escape from this reality-shaped hole. Johnson, being a far better liar, may have fared better.
All of which is to say that the mad events in British politics have become less mad, not more; or rather, their madness has become more confined. Not so long ago, both main parties were going mad together, Brexit and Corbyn propping one another up. Labour is no longer mad. The neverending psychodrama is now restricted to one side of the aisle.
There is no real precedent for what happens next. What does the Tory party do, when it has two years to sit around and wait to lose an election? No one really knows because it never really happens. A Conservative prime minister has lost a general election only once in the last 48 years – John Major in 1997. The party will surely have worked out now that changing the leader isn’t going to help.
At time of typing, the best that the party can hope for is that Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt do enough to restore its reputation to prevent it being out of office for very long. But equally, the underlying numbers it is staring down upon are bleak. Almost nobody young ever votes for them anymore. And increasingly, as young people become middle-aged, they are not changing their minds and embracing the Conservative in the way that they used to.
We are probably not witnessing its extinction, but if the Tory party ever comes back, it will need to have undergone an extremely radical reinvention first.
Twenty Twenty-Two has also done more, in the eyes of normal people, to diminish the general view of MPs than any year, quite possibly since the expenses scandal of 2009. Johnson was, in the end, brought down by his deputy chief whip’s drunken groping at a private members club. The Tories lost two by-elections in one day. These by-elections occurred because one MP had been watching porn in the House of Commons and another had been convicted of sexually assaulting a child. The sheer number of MPs, from almost all parties, who have faced allegations, proven or as yet unproven, of the most appalling nature is almost too many to recall.
One MP, by the name of Matt Hancock, who also broke lockdown rules in his own special way, has used his own notoriety for immense personal gain. There are two reasons anyone knows who Matt Hancock is. The first is that he was a notoriously incompetent health secretary. The other is that he was filmed on CCTV having an affair with one of his advisers, at the same time as calling for criminal prosecution for anyone doing exactly as he had done.
Both of these things he has monetised for huge gain. Had he not made such a notorious fool of himself, he would certainly not have been able to charge £400,000 for a three-week TV appearance crawling through rat-infested burrows and eating a camel’s penis. Politics, it should hardly need to be said, should not work in this way.
But nevertheless, we end 2022 in more or less the same place we began it. With a prime minister promising to level up the country but refusing to face economic reality, and hoping he can somehow convince the voters his party borrowed from Labour three years ago that they’re better off sticking with him. They are most certainly not going to. And if he has a big idea for how to turn it around in the two short years ahead, then we’ve heard not a whisper of it yet.