© Financial Times

This is an audio transcript of the Payne’s Politics podcast episode: ‘2022 year in review’

Sebastian Payne
Rishi Sunak capped off a turbulent political year in Westminster with tough words and pledges of actions for dealing with the small boats crisis enveloping the UK.

Rishi Sunak
This is not what previous generations intended when they drafted our humanitarian laws. Nor is it the purpose of the numerous international treaties to which the UK is a signatory. And unless we act now and decisively, this will only get worse.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Sebastian Payne
Welcome to Payne’s Politics, your essential insider guide to Westminster from the Financial Times with me, Sebastian Payne. In this week’s episode, my last in the hosting chair, we’ll be looking back at what can only be described as a truly epic period in British politics, with three prime ministers, two Conservative leadership contests, countless Budgets, one market crash and dozens of podcasts. I’m delighted to be joined for my last tour by four comrades who have been a crack part of the Payne’s Politics team over the last six-and-a-half years. Political editor George Parker, chief political correspondent Jim Pickard, chief political commentator Robert Shrimsley, and our deputy opinion editor Miranda Green. And those of you who listened last week will know I am now off to pastures new. From January, I’m taking over the think-tank Onward as its new director. But have no fear, the pod will be back under a new guise in the new year. But until then, thank you all very much for joining.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Well, gang, 2022 in politics, not much has happened. We’ve just been sitting going through the script about all the things that have happened and January last year feels like an awful long time ago. So, George Parker, let’s begin with partygate. So the year began with the drip-drip of stories about those rule-breaking gatherings in Downing Street in the beginning of January. We have the evening of Prince Philip’s funeral, where you had people getting boozed up in Downing Street and there was a physical fist-fight, the suitcase of wine. When you look back on that, it sort of feels like another age. But really, out of the three Ps that bore down Boris Johnson — Owen Paterson, partygate and Pincher — it was partygate was the one that dominated the beginning of the year.

George Parker
Yes, it wasn’t just the lurid events you’ve just described, Seb. It was essentially a question about the probity of the prime minister, wasn’t it? And the cover-up, which always gets people in the end, as we know. And it was classic Boris Johnson. He failed to get a grip on the issue at the beginning. He failed to sit down his press team to work out exactly what had gone on and whether they had a line that they could defend. And the moment they said there were no parties, the skids were under Boris Johnson. It played out over weeks and then months, and eventually it led to the events that brought him down. But it was a fatal mistake of Boris Johnson, not just the parties themselves, but the way they tried to cover it up from the outset.

Sebastian Payne
Well, Jim Pickard, we remember this began with Sue Gray. So the beginning of this year was everyone’s favourite secret Whitehall mandarin doing an investigation into partygate and it ended up with something like 500 documents, 300 photographs, 200 security logs where this long inquiry into what exactly had gone on, and then January was that endless days and weeks of waiting for Sue Gray. You could eventually get it on T-shirts, I think. But the political pressure really was building on Boris Johnson at that point, wasn’t it? Because you could feel the mood of the party was turning against him. There may potentially be some kind of confidence vote.

Jim Pickard
I have to say, Seb, that it’s been such a crazy year. It feels a bit like a quiz that I’m destined to fail (laughter) without the use of Google in the FT . . . 

Miranda Green
Seconded.

Jim Pickard
.com archive because so much has happened. It just points to the fact that so many different scandals were lapping at Boris Johnson’s ankles. And it wasn’t just partygate, was it? There was also the whole way he tried to shake up the sleaze rules to how Owen Paterson a few months earlier. There was the Chris Pincher thing that I’m sure we’ll get on to as well. I mean, partygate was just part of an accumulation of problems, questions about Boris Johnson’s probity. And yes, going back over, it does feel a bit like excavating behind [inaudible] the Phoenician empire (laughter) implied, because we’ve (laughter) had how many prime ministers since then. But yeah, the Sue Gray report was of course a major part of that.

Sebastian Payne
And Miranda Green, if we think back to that report, you know, I think if the full Sue Gray report, which eventually came out in May had come out in January, Boris Johnson would have faced a confidence vote at that moment because we really thought MPs were fed up. They were fed up off the back of Owen Paterson. And at the end of last year, we had the endless videos, but also we had Omicron as well. And don’t forget, you know, this is the first Christmas we’ve had in three years that’s been vaguely normal. And at that point, Tory MPs had to go through all these measures they didn’t like, didn’t want to vote for. And Boris Johnson came very close to shutting down Christmas last year, but ultimately didn’t. And partly, that was because Tory MPs were not on support with that. They said, you know, if you’re gonna bring in draconian new measures, we will not support them. They brought in masks and testing last December and they only got it through on Labour party votes. So again, this shows how the bond between the party leader and the MPs had begun to break.

Miranda Green
Any administration gets into difficulty once you’ve got the bunker of Number 10 versus the rest of the party, and that’s usually what spells downfall. But you know, the fact that they were partying in the bunker while everyone else was unable to go to their relatives’ funerals, you know, looked pretty bad. And I think I probably agree with you about the full Sue Gray report. But I think also what was politically fatal was the fact that the Conservative party realised that what this looked like was one rule for the public during Covid and another rule for those in Downing Street. And politically, when you’ve got a party that’s sensitive on the issue of kind of protecting elites and looking out of touch, that could be fatal. And so I think in the end, that drip, drip, drip was worsened by that sensation of the political sort of brand damage to the Tory party as partying of elites while the rest of the country suffered.

Jim Pickard
I remember going out and taking a look at vox pops in Swindon around January and every single person you spoke to was furious about this thing.

Sebastian Payne
And I think, Miranda, when you and I worked on the common desk at the FT together, we had a banned list of clichés that could not be used in FT columns.

Miranda Green
I know what you’re gonna say.

Sebastian Payne
You (laughter) know exactly what I’m going to say here, which was the Ernest Hemingway “gradually, then suddenly”. And that’s famous what happened with Boris Johnson in partygate, that you had this drip of stories, which Boris Johnson’s inner circle, George thought, was all about Dominic Cummings. They thought that his acolytes were briefing the story. You remember, there was talk of a grid of stories they were going to leak out there. It meant that Downing Street could never really get on the front foot about this. And as you said, they set that line very early on that there were no parties and no rules were broken and they could never really get away from that. And that really bedogged him to the very end.

George Parker
‘Bedogged’ is a great word, Seb, which I think we’re gonna miss you using.

[LAUGHTER]

Miranda Green
We don’t want to put that on the banned list. We want that on the must-use list.

George Parker
I’m going to use that word, ‘bedogged’ again. Well, look, I think he was bedogged certainly by the spectre of Dominic Cummings. And you could tell the moment Dominic Cummings walked out of Downing Street the previous November with his box under his arm heading to the bus stop . . . 

Sebastian Payne
You had a great intro on this, wasn’t it? It was one of your best intros.

George Parker
About a box laden full of secrets that he was going to deploy against Boris Johnson. And of course, that is what he has done through his blog and through Substack accounts and everything else. So that was part of it. But as Jim says, you know, this isn’t just a Westminster bubble thing about Dominic Cummings and this is something that really wound people up and will come on to the bi-election next year. There’s a mythology around Boris Johnson, mainly written by himself, of course, Churchill-style. But don’t forget, Boris Johnson, by the time of his downfall, was massively, massively unpopular with the public, as evidenced by a series of by-elections where they lost a series of seats, which the nation never lost a month of Sundays.

Sebastian Payne
Well, let’s hear briefly from Boris Johnson, which was when the interim Sue Gray report came out in January, we got the first of many apologies.

Boris Johnson
Mr. Speaker, I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish that they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love. And I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself, the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.

Sebastian Payne
Now, Jim, when you hear that, that was Boris Johnson at his more contrite, but then we get into February this year and the Met police wake up from their slumber and Sue Gray and her investigation team of about 20 civil servants have been passing information to the Met throughout this process where they thought law breaking had happened. And there was this constant clamour from Labour, from the Liberal Democrats saying ‘when are you going to investigate?’ And the Met never did. And then Cressida Dick, who is appearing at the London assembly, popped up and said, ‘Actually, we will start investigation’. Operation Hillman was launched and the Sue Gray report went on ice. And it all went in this sort of black box where we didn’t know what was going on. And it was very frustrating, I think, for a lot of people and for a lot of MPs because it felt as if it was all coming to a head and then it just sort of dissipated.

Jim Pickard
This has been playing on my mind for 5 minutes, but have you got the Sue Gray T-shirt?

Sebastian Payne
I don’t have the Sue Gray T-shirt, but if you want to find me one, Jim, for a Christmas present, I will wear it for my pyjamas.

Jim Pickard
It was an incredibly difficult decision for the police to make. I mean, it was an acutely politically sensitive thing to do for a police force to actually investigate the sitting prime minister and everyone around him. And quite a brave thing to do. But like you said, I think that the public pressure just became too much for them to withstand. And then the issue of Boris Johnson’s contrition — and we heard him a second ago sounding vaguely contrite — the thing about it was that he would always sound kind of plausible when he said it, and then he’d pop up the PMQs a couple of days later, basically just rubbishing the idea that he’d done anything wrong and just sounding very much like it was everyone else’s fault. And he didn’t know about anything and just he just turned the whole thing into a whole joke again. So again, I think that did irritate people quite a lot during that period. We saw the full range of Boris Johnson’s weaknesses and strengths over that long period, didn’t we? The fact that he was still charismatic, he was still a kind of verbose but interesting speaker, he still had reservoirs of deep support within people who had voted Tory. A lot of the country were furious with him. I’d make the one caveat that when you talk to Tory MPs over that period and into the summer, there was a definite kind of demographic split. Some of the blue-collar workers who’d come from Labour and switched across because of Brexit still thought Boris was a bit of a card and were prepared to give him another chance. It was among a lot of the white collar, professional, “natural” Tories he’d face — Tories all their lives — were just starting to basically lose their rag and lose their faith in him completely.

Sebastian Payne
And Miranda, things actually got very difficult for the Met police at this time. So yes, they were doing this very sensitive matter, but Cressida Dick was forced out. In fact, this was following a whole bunch of scandals, including the Charing Cross police station. And she explained why she was pushed out by Sadiq Khan.

Cressida Dick
Following contact with the mayor of London today, it is quite clear that the mayor no longer has sufficient confidence in my leadership over the Metropolitan Police Service for me to continue as commissioner. He has left me no choice but to step aside. I say this with deep sadness and regret.

Sebastian Payne
And I think, Miranda, sort of policing and trust in policing has been a consistent event throughout this year, I mean, the reputation of the Met is pretty much in tatters. But Cressida Dick’s departure, of course, which was intrinsically linked with partygate and many other issues, was very contentious. There was later an inquiry by Sir Tom Winsor, the independent inspector, who basically said Sadiq Khan had acted inappropriately. And Sadiq Khan went quite Boris Johnson, in fact he started attacking Sir Tom Winsor, saying that in fact his report was biased and was not actually the case. But it does sort of feel to me as if the Met’s in a better place now and if there’s, if the trust has been restored in policing.

Miranda Green
Listening to Jim saying that the gamut of the strengths and weaknesses of Boris Johnson were on display during those last weeks of his premiership. Actually, you know, I think this year has shown the full gamut of the strengths and weaknesses of the British Constitution and of our whole system of public life, really, because if you think about it, I mean, we all talk the whole time about Peter Hennessy’s famous phrase that our system of government in the UK depends on the “good chap” theory, which is there aren’t really that many checks and balances. You’re trusting people to be a good chap and obviously women can also be a good chap and . . . 

Sebastian Payne
Chapess.

Miranda Green
Chapess. And in the end, Cressida Dick was felt really to not potentially be a good chapess and was moved on and shuffled off. Even now, there are voices in parliament strongly resisting the last stages of the inquiry into Boris Johnson’s behaviour and whether he in fact misled parliament. But even the rules around what the consequences of misleading parliament are, are open to interpretation.

Sebastian Payne
Mmm.

Miranda Green
So we’ve kind of had exposed over 2022 the gaps in our system where the Constitution doesn’t necessarily stand up to pressure. I mean, in the end, obviously, Boris Johnson had to go so it kind of does show that it worked in the end. But those pressures have been very visible and I think the Metropolitan Police is actually, you’re quite right, one of those institutions which has sort of visibly lost public trust.

Sebastian Payne
Now, at the end of February, January and February, George, Boris Johnson tried a little bit of a fight back, and you’ve probably forgotten this. But there was — do you remember the Office for Prime Minister, when they announced they were going to change the structure of Downing Street to deal with the fact there was not good support structure?

Miranda Green
Was this, was this a reset?

Sebastian Payne
This was one of the many resets we had in 2022.

Jim Pickard
And Operation Big Dog, was that a different one?

Sebastian Payne
Big Dog was founded at the end of February. We’ll come on to Big Dog in a moment. Very important detail here.

Miranda Green
Big Dog was bedogged, I think.

Sebastian Payne
Exactly. Now, at this point in February, you had a new chief whip. Chris Heaton-Harris came in, Jacob Rees-Mogg was moved out to become Brexit opportunities minister. Boris Johnson announced they were going to create the Office for Prime Minister because the interim Sue Gray report had highlighted big problems, which I think still exist and are actually justified about how Downing Street works. And it didn’t really do much good at this point to really save him. But also, we should note, he of course, there was a new deputy chief whip appointed at that point, which was Chris Pincher, which became very significant later. Those reforms of Number 10 seem to have disappeared somewhat. Have not heard much about them since then.

George Parker
Well, until you mentioned them, I’d totally forgotten about them, to be honest. (Miranda laughs) So the thing about these resets, as Miranda points out, I mean, they were resets every six months. And the idea that Boris Johnson would learn his lessons, he’d bring in a new team and they’d change the way they do things — it was complete rubbish. He was never going to change. Of course he was never going to change. When he was mayor of London, it did work. There was a labour base to delegate, to a series of deputy mayors who were competent, and he just went around making speeches, making everyone feel good. But it’s different as prime minister. You’ve actually got to get your fingers dirty. You’ve got to get through the red box. You can’t wing it in the way Boris Johnson was doing, and you can have as many people around him as you liked, but the fundamental problem was the principle. It was Boris Johnson. And around the same time as the reset, of course, there was another Boris bout, which was obviously the way that he responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which did present him in a much better light. He had a very clear moral view on it. He had a clearer view on it than many of his European counterparts. And that, I think, bought him some political breathing space because he did respond exactly correctly. And I think he deserves some credit for that.

Sebastian Payne
And this is obviously the first time I’m going to mention the fact that I’ve written a very good book on this topic, available in all good bookshops — The Moment: The Fall of Boris Johnson and Jim . . . 

Jim Pickard
I’ve read the book.

Sebastian Payne
I haven’t mentioned that at all, Jim, but the Ukraine thing was obviously, I think when the history of Boris Johnson is written, he will want that to be one of the things he’s positively remembered for. And I think George is right that, you know, very early on Boris created this relationship with Vladimir Zelenskyy, and I think it was kind of they could both be useful to each other that Zelenskyy, someone who was fully behind him in the west, who was in Nato, who would get the weapons and the training and the kit. And on the other side of it, Boris Johnson wanted his Churchillian moment. And I remember when I interviewed various people in the defence world for the book about that they said, you know, Boris was so much more engaged on this than anything else. And he said when you had the maps out, he knew the towns, he knew the rivers, he knew the lines. He was sort of getting this Allenbrooke-style about how you run a government. It is remarkable that if you look at what people in Ukraine have always felt about Boris Johnson, far more positive than within the UK. Do you think he gets enough credit? And there’s also a view of some people as well. And I think many Labour MPs I’ve spoken to this year often say they think it was very cynical and he used it just to prop up his faltering political position. What are your thoughts on all that?

Jim Pickard
In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether it was kind of moral purity that led him down that path or whether it was a form of narcissism and grandstanding. You know, the end result, I think, around this time, we can all agree, was a moral and the right thing to do. The question of whether the public appreciated — which public? The Ukrainian public, 100 per cent yes; the British public, I suspect if you focus-grouped you’d get a sense that people agreed that it’s probably the right thing to do but they worry about the consequences for the British economy, for their jobs, their energy bills and all the rest of it. He was right at the forefront of the action. There were specific things where Britain did lead the field. I think on financial sanctions we pushed it very hard. First, we sort of corralled other world leaders to do the same thing. And I remember being on duty on the Sunday where Liz Truss first mentioned the idea of oil sanctions or efforts by the west to buy less Russian oil. And at the time no one in Brussels or Washington was talking about it. She was foreign secretary, of course, at the time. She was ahead on that point when other people weren’t thinking about it.

Sebastian Payne
Well, let’s hear Boris Johnson speaking just after the Ukraine invasion happened at the end of February. And again, this speaks to that Churchillian thing of rhetoric to try and rally behind the cause.

Boris Johnson
The atrocities committed by Russian troops in Bucha, Irpin and elsewhere in Ukraine have horrified the world. Civilians massacred, shot dead with their hands tied, women raped in front of their young children, bodies crudely burned, dumped in mass graves or just left lying in the street. The reports are so shocking and so sickening.

Sebastian Payne
And when you hear that, Miranda, again, it shows a sort of window into what could have been a quite different Boris Johnson premiership. And it’s one question that I wrestled with this year and I think we probably all have, which is how did he get this one thing so right?

Miranda Green
It’s very interesting. I absolutely agree. Probably it’s to do with seeing Britain’s role in the world as important, which is something that all prime ministers of the UK from both parties do, and some overestimate our importance in the world. But it was a moment for Boris Johnson to show that the UK would take a very, very clear moral stand and a practical stand, as you know, with important initiatives to combat Russian aggression financially, etc. But when you were sort of talking about his popularity in Ukraine and that bond he forged with Zelenskyy, I was thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting”, because actually do you remember Tony Blair over Kosovo? There were lots of babies born in Kosovo in the years after called Tony, and there are Tony Blair streets in Kosovo. And this thing where the prime minister of the country decides to give Britain an important role, intervening in a moral question in Europe, they see it themselves as a defining moment, and hopefully they hope the history books will also say the same thing. It’s probably one of the only moments that you would compare Boris Johnson and Tony Blair, but I think there is something going on there. And of course now on to Keir Starmer. Nato is again popular with the Labour benches . . . 

Sebastian Payne
Mmm.

Miranda Green
Right? Because under Jeremy Corbyn, that whole left anti-Nato strand of opinion had the upper hand.

Jim Pickard
There aren’t many 19-year-old Tonys in Iraq though, are there?

Miranda Green
No, indeed, Jim.

Jim Pickard
(Inaudible) political.

Miranda Green
No, no, indeed.

Sebastian Payne
Now, George, obviously, this sort of did move away from partygate. Boris Johnson had something else to talk about, and I think the Tory poll ratings did recover a bit when Ukraine was dominant in March and April. But ever since the partygate scandal started in December, the Tories have always been behind in the polls and that has grown as the events unfurled this year. You could see people, I remember Charles Walker, the veteran Tory MP, kind of saying Boris has turned it around. He’s now got this much more important thing. And Ukraine became very important in the coming months as he was fined by the Met Police and as the leadership challenge came, because you could see people as outside to say, “We can’t get rid of Boris because Ukraine is too important. This fight is too central to our values”. They said it was all of course about cake and sandwiches and surprise birthday parties whereas you said earlier, it was actually about the much more germane issues of morality and truth and that sort of thing.

George Parker
Yeah, I don’t think foreign policy tends to be the determinant of the success or otherwise of a prime minister or a party. So in the end, it’s not that surprising that the Ukraine crisis, to be cynical about it, didn’t save Boris Johnson’s career because in the end people don’t care enough about foreign policy. Also, the argument you can’t change a leader during a crisis or during a war is obviously manifestly not true. In fact, we repeatedly changed leaders during crises and think back to John Major or Winston Churchill succeeding Chamberlain or Lloyd George in the first one. In fact, that’s the norm rather than the exception, isn’t it? So I don’t think that saved him at all. And in the end, the war in Ukraine, of course, stored up other problems. So it was a faraway war which obviously had huge economic implications for the UK, which bedogged, to use the phrase of the day, both Boris Johnson and his successors as well, most notably, of course, Liz Truss, who we’ll come on to in a moment.

Sebastian Payne
Now, in April and May, domestic politics returned in quite a big way when Boris Johnson was fined. And while the Ukraine thing was going on, George, you and I had all these conversations with various people in Downing Street who said there’s no chance of him getting fined whatsoever. These were all work events. We’ve got very expensive lawyers. You can set out all these justifications about why he was there and it was part of leadership and duty. That all came crashing down on April the 12th when the prime minister became the first prime minister to have broken the law within office. This is how he responded.

Boris Johnson
On the 12th of April, I received a fixed penalty notice relating to an event in Downing Street on the 19th of June, 2020. I paid the fine immediately and I offered the British people a full apology. And I take this opportunity on the first available sitting day to repeat my wholehearted apology to the House. As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and the anger. And, I said that people had a right to expect better of their prime minister.

Sebastian Payne
Well, Jim, when you hear that again, another apology on partygate, another indication of contrition from Boris Johnson. But the fine was still quite a shock when it came. And the actual event he was fined for, which was on the 19th of June, 2020 was the most surprising one, actually, in some ways. I know that when Sue Gray heard about the fine, she was very surprised in fact. Because there were other events where it was more alcohol, there were much more what, you and I would call a party, even more so than this podcast today. But that event was him and surprise birthday party with cake in a Tupperware box. And the photograph that was released was him handing a can of Estrella, Simon Case laughing, and some Marks and Spencer sandwiches on the table. And we’ve never really got to the bottom of why that was the event he was fined for and not for the others he attended.

Jim Pickard
It looked like a pretty rubbish party, the one when he got the fine for.

Sebastian Payne
After your to better parties.

Jim Pickard
Think about Boris and the parties was that, that the most kind of venal ones where there was booze being spilt up the walls and and the staff that complained about it and were overlooked, and a swing was broken, that kind of thing. I don’t think Boris Johnson was at those parties and possibly didn’t know about them, and therefore, the public view that they were all partying like crazy and pouring wine all over the walls was a bit unfair. I think politically, what kind of saved Boris’s bacon slightly at that time was that, it was interesting. The way Rishi Sunak had been behaving in the lead up to that was he’d been kind of quite moralistic about it and refused to support Boris Johnson. And just by the process of what he didn’t say, made it quite clear that he too took a morally superior view on this. So, when he got a fine as well for being at one of these non-party parties, that kind of shot the focus of Rishi Sunak on that point. By the way, an important thing, I’ve just Googled “bedog” and it turns out that “bedog” is to call a person a dog. So I think, we’ve been using “bedog” instead of “bedevil”. Anyway, just a small intervention.

Sebastian Payne
Well, dog is not the devil for anyone who listens to the podcast and likes dogs. And, but Miranda the fine was obviously a big moment in the Johnson-Sunak relationship. And I think we reported at that time that actually Rishi Sunak spent seven hours deciding whether to resign or not. Now, he had actually thought about resigning in December when the first partygate stories came. And as Jim was saying, he took this very moralistic view. And, if people in Rishi Sunak’s camp deny that, we point out to them it was December they registered, ready4rishi.com, which is normally indication. I remember when I asked someone about this in his camp, they said, people register websites all the time, which is one of the worst spin lines I think I’ve ever heard. But at that moment, with the fine, Sunak really did think about going at that point. And it wasn’t just the fine, he was obviously unhappy about the National Insurance Levy, which was to pay for health and social care spending. He didn’t want that, was very clear. He felt that raising taxes was a bad idea to help better fund the NHS. But he did stick around. But from that sort of fine onwards, it felt as if their relationship just was not functioning and George, we were getting much more blue on blue fire from both sides, that Sunak’s camp was saying Johnson was lazy and hopeless and wasn’t fit to be prime minister. Johnson’s camp said Sunak was a rich, entitled billionaire, all that kind of stuff.

Miranda Green
It wasn’t just the substance, there was a, it was a serial evasions of Downing Street, I think. And so these particular moments, as we’ve already said, you know, gradually then suddenly, different members of the cabinet had that kind of tipping point at different moments. And then of course, it all came to a head with the kind of slew of resignation letters right at the end, where of course, you know, Liz Truss and Ben Wallace were able, I think, with quite a lot of justification to say that because they were handling an international crisis, they would not be resigning from the government. That Sunak relationship, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because of course, when Sunak did finally resign after the Chris Pincher affair, the resignation letter had all of these different reasons in the letter which made it sound ever so slightly incoherent, but did bring out the fact that towards the end there were also huge disagreements about the direction of the government and about economic policy. Which again, undermined Boris Johnson’s position politically above and beyond the crisis of probity that we’ve been talking about.

Sebastian Payne
At the time George, we were kind of saying, “No, it’s Boris. He’s never gonna go anywhere. He survived scandal after scandal”. But with retrospect, the fine was the moment where the end kind of began at that point, because he’d always kept saying there were no parties, there were no rules broken. He has the Met police saying “you broke the law while you were prime minister”. So, it kind of proved very clearly that that happened. And around this time, the House of Commons voted to open up a inquiry into whether Boris Johnson had misled the House. And, this is obviously going to have big consequences in 2023, for his future aspirations. And, Downing Street had another failed attempt to trying to stop that inquiry. The prime minister, I think he was in, was he in India? Were you there with them in India (hmm) and for the trade junket.

George Parker
Yeah.

Sebastian Payne
And they tried to undo this through this inquiry. They failed. That inquiry has not started but fundamentally, MPs are gonna hold Boris Johnson in a kind of pound shop January the 6th-style hearings, to quiz him on all of the parties, all of this detail, going over all the questions about whether he had misled, because he knew the parties were going on. And we then got the full Sue Gray report which by this point, we sort of knew all the details of it. But it did just expose how bad things were and just a complete lack of grip at the centre of government on actually running the country.

George Parker
Yeah, it was kind of the cold icy prose of Sue Gray, I suppose, which brought some of it home. Though some people felt that she in the end pulled her punches and she didn’t, for example, launch an inquiry into what some people thought, that was probably one of the most egregious parties, the one that was taking place, the so-called ABBA Party taking place in the Downing Street flats. But nevertheless, yeah, that did identify a complete breakdown of management, moral integrity at the heart of government. And people often said, you couldn’t imagine this happening under Theresa May’s premiership. And of course, that’s entirely true. And after we saw the Sue Gray report, we had yet another round of Boris Johnson saying that he was gonna learn the lessons, he was gonna reset things. And of course, that didn’t happen. And it wasn’t very long before the next scandal came along, which we’re about to talk about, the Chris Pincher scandal, which revealed yet again, they just hadn’t learned the lessons. He hadn’t got a grip on things, he didn’t establish what the facts were, tried to bluster his way through, and in the end it all blew up in his face.

Sebastian Payne
Before we get to Chris Pincher affair, we had the confidence vote, which was after the full Sue Gray report and after the fine, those letters, the famous letter that we’ve spent far too much this year trying to guess how many of them are actually in that, I would say reported, but I think guess is probably a more accurate description of it. And the moment that really tipped over was this, at a service at St Paul’s Cathedral for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

[Cheering from Queen’s Platinum Jubilee]

Sebastian Payne
Now in that slightly grainy moment there, Jim, you can hear cheers, but also some boos. And there was some debate whether there are more cheers and boos. The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, said there were more cheers. You’ll be surprised to hear, but both, I think the BBC and ITV, picked up a lot of booing and these were not to quote “swell above men tofu eating, north London, garden easterners”. These were people who’d camped out on the pavements for several long days to see the royal family and the great and good of the British state. And, many Tory MPs I spoke to over that Jubilee weekend said that actually crystallised just how unpopular Boris Johnson had become. The booing then led to the confidence letters. And from there, we had the vote and 41 per cent of Tory MPs voted against Boris Johnson, which was a worse result than John Major in 1995. He was out by the electorate in two years. A worse result than Margaret Thatcher, who was out within nine months, a year, I should say. And a worse result than Theresa May, who was out within nine months. And again, from the moment that 41 per cent and we felt that was it. And it was the question of when not if he was going to go.

Jim Pickard
Yeah. And I think with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that he was fatally wounded then. The problem with history is always what lessons do you take from it? And, in politics you can take various lessons from, you know, the fall of Margaret Thatcher, whoever. But you know, I’ve always been struck by the way that Gordon Brown lost the confidence of his party, basically. And he had loads of cabinet ministers resigning, but he was just so determined to cling on that he kept going. And, Jeremy Corbyn in a different way had 160 out of his 214 MPs, telling him to get out and he just carried on going. And, Boris Johnson was not in the mood to call it quits. He wants to keep pressing on. Even though you’re right, it wasn’t a great victory for him. He technically was home and dry. He technically had another year to go before MPs could challenge him again. And at that point, I don’t think any of us foresaw how quickly the end would come.

Sebastian Payne
Well, if we just hear how Boris Johnson reacted to it, that’ll give you a sense of his thinking at that time.

Boris Johnson
I think it’s an extremely good, positive, conclusive, decisive result, which enables us to move on, to unite and to focus on delivery. And that is exactly what we’re gonna do.

Sebastian Payne
And final point George, as we’ve got a run-off to broadcast with a rival outlet.

George Parker
But it’s not as good as this one.

Sebastian Payne
Of course not. After the no confidence vote, things were kind of pretty shaky throughout June. The fact is Tory MPs were not happy. It felt it was quite unresolved because we had those crucial two by-elections, Tiverton and Honiton in your neck of the woods, the West Country, in Wakefield in North England, my home lands and it felt that both ends of a conservative college were being pulled apart by the fact of how unpopular Boris Johnson was, that the so-called red wall, the former Labour heartlands, they were abandoning him and the blue wall of traditional Tory heartlands, they were abandoning him. And then we also lost in that period, just as an aside, before we forget: Lord Christopher Geidt. Remember him, the former independent adviser on ministerial interests. He resigned over steel tariffs. Clearly (laughter) a very big issue that . . . 

George Parker
[Laughter] (Garbled audio . . . remember I think that will definitely be a trivial pursuing question in years to come.

Miranda Green
Yeah! To be replaced, though we should mention . . . 

Sebastian Payne
Yes, exactly!

Miranda Green
For probity of government.

George Parker
Well, the thing is, if you lose a confidence or you survive a confidence vote with four out of ten of your own MPs deciding you’re not suitable to be Prime Minister, it’s not a great platform to go to the voters and say, can you put another Tory MP back in to support Boris Johnson? So you saw with spectacular effect, less so in Wakefield, where the Labour party won a convincing victory, but not a spectacular one. But in Timperton and Horsham were there was a 24,000 Conservative majority and been conservative all the time I’ve known Everton and for it to be overturned in such a spectacular fashion — that spooked the party. They’d already had a series of defeats the Liberal Democrats, including in Chesham and Amersham in North Shropshire. But that one, I mean, that seat was a solidatory seat, as you can imagine. And that sent shivers through the whole blue wall, if you want to call it the southern belt, the blue Tory seats, and set the scene ready for the downfall to come with which . . . Seb, I’m sorry, I’ve got to dash off, but good luck in your next endeavours.

Sebastian Payne
Thank you, George.

George Parker
See you on the other side.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Sebastian Payne
Well, now let’s pick up our canter through 2022 with Robert Shrimsley, who’s joined our morning panel for this. So we’re just coming to the end, Robert, where we uhm... Where the Tories have lost those two by-elections and the mood in the party is: don’t let anything else go wrong. And what goes wrong is the Chris Pincher affair. That he was, as we mentioned, installed as deputy chief whip in February in the efforts to prop up the Johnson government. And he goes to the Carlton Club in St James’s and essentially allegedly sexually harasses a young Tory researcher who’s there. The following day he has to quit as deputy chief whip. And then Boris Johnson did this for a while and eventually removed the Tory whip from him. But this then feeds into the very last few days when we saw the resignation of Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak. Why do you think they messed up the response to Chris Pincher so badly?

Robert Shrimsley
Well, for the same reason they messed up the response to everything else so badly, which is the standard default position, is to see if you can get away with things before you go and look at what the actual truth of the pattern is. Possibly also a degree of forgetfulness about what he did and didn’t know. You see this all the way through. What really does for him with as we get to the final days is not so much the offence of having put Chris Pincher back into government, but of sending his ministers out to defend him with things that aren’t true. And they get sent on to the radio, they parrot the line that they’ve got from Downing Street which supposedly has looked into it and what? Lo and behold, 10 minutes later, they find out that in fact it’s not correct and they’re made to look chumps. And this has happened all the way through the Boris Johnson regime. And so it’s the final straw. It’s not the event in itself. It’s just the one too many.

Sebastian Payne
And it became the final straw for Sajid Javid, who was then health secretary, who was one of those ministers who was often put out on the morning broadcast round to defend the government. And he essentially decided he had enough. And in his speech, which I think strived to be the Geoffrey Howe of the era — but maybe didn’t quite get there — but this is what he told the House of Commons on why he’d had enough.

Sajid Javid
There’s only so many times you can turn that machine on and off before you realise that something is fundamentally wrong. Last month I gave the benefit of doubt one last time, but I haven’t concluded that the problem starts at the top. That is not going to change. I have concluded that the problem starts at the top and I believe that is not going to change.

Sebastian Payne
But Jim when you hear that, it was quite about when Sajid Javid quit because throughout those final days of Boris Johnson, there was a lot of backwards forwards with Downing Street and whether they were lying to the press, whether they’d knowingly misled on where things were going. And he resigned at about five minutes past six on the final Tuesday before Boris Johnson quits, we were... I remember being in the press gallery and this collective scream and it was like, “Oh my God, Saj is gone”. And then just 5 minutes later, Rishi Sunak went as well. And then at that point, you know, there is a view in Boris Johnson’s circle they could have survived losing Saj, but the combo of Saj and Sunak was, that was it at that point?

Jim Pickard
Yeah. And I remember watching that speech and I think some people have been a bit unkind and said it was a bit wooden or indeed it wasn’t as epic as the Geoffrey Howe moment a generation ago. But I remember listening to it and just thinking, this guy spent a very long time thinking about this. The argument here is very lucid. It’s very clear he’s absolutely sticking the knife in and pointing out all of Boris Johnson’s failings and those failings, we’ve been clear about for a very long time, about his kind of questionable personal judgment, his sort of reckless lack of preparation and fly-by-night approach. But, but also he basically is supporting people around him who were loyal lords. He was everything. And therefore, if you’re a Boris Johnson supporter, you get promotion. And the Chris Pincher thing was literally known about for years in the sense of in 2017, he stood down as the junior whip after being accused of making this unwanted pass at some former Olympic rower. It was all over the newspapers then. Boris Johnson knew about Chris Pincher’s tendencies when he appointed him, but he put him in there because he was a Johnson loyalist. And the Sajid Javid point, you gotta wonder whether Sunak wishes he went first. They denied that there was any collusion between them over the timing, didn’t they? But I think such as the one who’s going to make the history books for actually precipitating that final decline.

Sebastian Payne
So Miranda Green, we then obviously come to the resignation of Boris Johnson over the next 24 hours. We had the ridiculous number of ministers who resigned. I remember Sky News had a ticker low low point. It was like pound down, weather dreadful. Oh, but look, ministerial resignations have gone up because it was every hour, more and more people eventually decided they couldn’t stand it anymore. And Boris Johnson eventually decides late that night, when he’s trying to fill up his government, he can’t get ministers do the job and he is going to go. Did it surprise you that ultimately when it came to it, he did just decide to resign? You know, he wasn’t actually fully heaved out by the 1922 committee or through some constitutional means.

Miranda Green
Well, there are two key things, aren’t there? If you can’t find any ministers to anymore, go on to the broadcasters and defend the indefensible, you’ve got a problem. And then if you look at the numbers and you look at your spreadsheets or your whiteboard on the wall in Downing Street, and you literally can’t fill the ministerial posts because so few people are willing to remain as loyal lieutenants of your regime, then you can’t run a government anymore. So you are actually confronting the inevitable at that point. I had a great time with those letters because I was doing a literary review of the resignation letter, some of which were pretty flowery and poetic, and some of them kind of stuck it to them in a quite merciless way. I can’t help thinking that those chaotic last weeks and days — the whole country could have been spared that, had the Tory party actually had an obvious successor. Because actually I think a lot of this, all the processes of going back to the 1922 committee, you know, the endless days of have enough letters gone in or not. If the Tory party had actually been able earlier in the spring or summer to coalesce around an obvious successor, I think it would have happened quicker. And that’s why there was this terrible, long, drawn-out death that depended on Boris Johnson sort of in the darkest hours of the night making that decision.

Sebastian Payne
And then when he decided to go, this is what he said outside 10 Downing Street.

Boris Johnson
It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister. And the reason I have fought so hard in the last few days to continue to deliver that mandate in person was not just because I wanted to do so, but because I felt it was my job, my duty, my obligation to you to continue to do what we promised in 2019. And, of course, I’m immensely proud of the achievements of this government.

Sebastian Payne
And even at that point, Robert, you could feel he was talking like a presidential figure. And in those final few days, he was very much talking about, you know, my mandate, the 40mn people who voted for me. And of course, they didn’t vote for him. They voted for the Conservative party. That’s how we were. But he felt as if, you know, he just did not want to give up, but then he eventually sort of did before we went on to the summer leadership contest, which was something lovely to look back on.

Robert Shrimsley
I’d slightly disagree with you because there was, he was an obvious leadership successor. It’s just they didn’t want to choose . . . 

Miranda Green
Yes, exactly. So, in fact, Sunak’s sort of...

Robert Shrimsley
Yeah . . . .

Miranda Green
Credibility had already taken a bit of a knock.

Robert Shrimsley
Precisely.

Miranda Green
Therefore, he did not pick up . . . yeah, exactly!

Robert Shrimsley
So, I mean, I think what we saw essentially was there were two leadership contests. There was the leadership contest, as we normally understand it, and there was the real leadership contest, which was the contest to be the candidate of the right who could stop Rishi Sunak. And so you had this huge gallery of characters, some of them attracting really quite substantial votes, which dispassionately, when you looked at, you thought, do you really think these people are ready to be prime minister? And it was a pretty unedifying a fight. And we should not surprising, therefore, it looks a pretty unedifying government at the end of it.

Sebastian Payne
Well, let’s listen to a clip from one of the TV debates that took place, because the leadership contest began with a cast of, if not hundreds of scores, shall we say, and whittle down to Liz Truss versus Rishi Sunak. And they had a couple of head-to-head bouts which as you said were put in, had to find, didn’t really get anywhere in terms of resolving the country’s issues.

Sophie Raworth
Are you ready for this?

Liz Truss
Yes, I am.

Rishi Sunak
Yeah, absolutely, So.

Sophie Raworth
Is now the right time to cut taxes?

Liz Truss
Everybody thinks that putting up taxes at this moment is going to hurt the economy. You can’t put up taxes and get growth if we follow Rishi’s plans ...

Rishi Sunak
Sophie, can we really . . . 

Liz Truss
We are headed for . . . 

Rishi Sunak
Sophie . . . 

Liz Truss
Excuse me. Excuse me?

Rishi Sunak
You promised almost £14bn. It’s not moral to ask our children to pick up the tab for the bills that we’re not prepared to pay.

Sophie Raworth
In the first two years, when you are prime minister, what changes will people see under you, prime minister Sunak, on levelling up?

Rishi Sunak
Manufacturing businesses across the country. What they tell me they need is that they want tax cuts on business investment because they want to invest . . . 

Liz Truss
OK.

Rishi Sunak
In more equipment and machinery . . . 

Liz Truss
What I would do immediately is put in new low-tax investment zones with simplified planning so we could get on with building and we can get on with those new projects. I’d keep corporation tax low to attract investment from around the world.

Sebastian Payne
Jim, when you listen back to those endless debates that went on and on, where after about the third week no one had anything new to actually say within the contest. And Liz Truss had a very simple message that you heard and she kept that focus throughout, which is going to cut taxes, we have to cut taxes. And Rishi Sunak said “That’s the wrong thing to do”. And I remember the very end of the contest. George and I interviewed Rishi Sunak in Hertfordshire, and he had I don’t know how the markets are going to wear this, and he was proven right. But when you look back on the Truss premiership, what are your thoughts and feelings?

Jim Pickard
When the “mini” Budget, inverted commas, went horribly wrong, the markets reacted and all the events panned out. A lot of Liz Truss’ supporters said, “Well, we didn’t have enough time to do any pitch rolling. You know, maybe if we delayed things a little bit we could have explained it most of the public and explain those to the markets”. But actually there was a massive load of pitch rolling all through the summer and the pitch drawing was Rishi Sunak getting across to lots of Tory voters and commentators and people in the markets that £40bn worth of unfunded tax cuts is a dangerous thing to do. I think apart from Conservative membership, you voted for Liz Truss. The pitch running only went in one way, which is a lot of us believe that Rishi Sunak was a more compelling argument and thus it turned out to be. That’s the only thing most people I think will remember that Tory contest for. I struggled to remember the eight candidates to the point I’ve just had to Google them and it all comes flooding back. But (laughter) it’s been such a crazy summer.

Sebastian Payne
Now Miranda, of course, before we came to the disastrous “mini” Budget was the most consequential events of this year, of course, which was the death of the Queen, which came just 48 hours after Liz Truss became prime minister, and the last act of Monarch was to do that transition of power. She was photographed in Balmoral as they did the shaking of hands and it was then left to Liz Truss to do the tributes to her Majesty and this is what she said about her very, very long reign.

Liz Truss
We are all devastated by the news that we have just heard from Balmoral. The death of Her Majesty the Queen is a huge shock to the nation and to the world. Queen Elizabeth II was the rock on which modern Britain was built. Our country has grown and flourished under her reign. Britain is the great country it is today because of her. She ascended the throne just after the second world war.

Sebastian Payne
Soaring over to you there, Robert, from the former prime minister.

Robert Shrimsley
Well, actually, listening to those words just now. I did find myself thinking, well, actually, Britain isn’t the country it is because of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. I mean, I realise that tribute you have to say nice things, but a) it’s not true. I’m not from the country. I imagine it’s not so great a country now than it was before her reign, because you had an empire before her reign, and it doesn’t have it any more. Now, I’m not trying to be pro-empire. I’m just saying, manifestly, when you listen to these tributes, you think this is actually just rubbish. So . . . 

Miranda Green
I thought it was all right actually. I think, I think the rock on which modern Britain is built is not appalling when you consider the massive social change that happened. The thing about Liz Truss, right, is it’s the best ever political Trivial Pursuit set of questions and there is going to be one which is ‘under which Prime Minister did Elizabeth II die and King Charles III succeeded her?’ And no one in the future will be able to remember that it was Liz Truss because she was Prime Minister for such a short time.

Jim Pickard
I remember her.

Miranda Green
Well, but we’re scarred in a different way. But you know, this is such a strange event to have a Prime Minister for such a short time and in politics you get these crazy kind of kamikaze characters who kind of zoom in, in and out of that page of the history book. But they’re not normally the prime minister. [LAUGHTER]

Sebastian Payne
Before they get to office.

Miranda Green
Exactly.

Sebastian Payne
And of course that period, which during the queen’s mourning was when her economic plans grew and grew until we came to the mini-Budget, Jim, and Kwasi Kwarteng, who was again very briefly chancellor of the Exchequer, this is what he told the House of Commons when he was announcing that disastrous fiscal event, as it was called.

Kwasi Kwarteng
The prime minister promised that we would be a tax-cutting government. Today we have cut stamp duty. We’ve allowed businesses to keep more of their own money to invest, to innovate and to grow. We have cut income tax and national insurance for millions of workers. We are securing our place in a fiercely competitive global economy with lower rates of corporation tax and lower rates of personal tax. We promise to prioritise growth, Mr Speaker.

Sebastian Payne
They did say that, Jim, but that didn’t actually happen. And pretty much there was a wholesale rejection of the fiscal plan by markets and by currency traders as soon as it landed. And what was so striking about it was there was no fiscal forecast. Normally, when you do an event of this scale, you would have the Office for Budget Responsibility setting out how much it’s gonna cost, how it’s going to be paid for. There wasn’t that. They’d also sack Sir Tom Scholar who was head of the Treasury. He could have helped to shore up and stabilise the government’s position. He was gone at that point. And then really appalling communications from the government with no reassurance. They just ducked away from this problem entirely. And then we ended into October with that very weird Tory party conference where we had this new government. We were pretending everything was just going on as it was and everything was collapsing around them. And it was at that conference the scrapping of the 45p top rate of tax was jettisoned and all the other bits of the mini-Budget just disintegrated.

Jim Pickard
They were shocked by the reaction to their mini-Budget because they took the view that while they’d been saying for months that they were going to take £40bn of unfunded tax cuts and they’d sort of done and not in a wink, that they’d be cutting some government spending in due course that could, you know, counteract some of that and then help pay for it. But they obviously didn’t do that on the day, also, as you say, Seb, they started sort of trashing various kind of economic institutions and sacking Tom Scholar was just part of it. They made it very clear that they were going to take an anti-establishment view on economic matters and then throwing in those extra policies on the day of scrapping top rate of income tax. And also getting rid of the banker bonus restrictions. And then furthermore, the Kwasi Kwarteng comments on the Sunday that he had more up his sleeve just conspires to keep everything over the edge. And it, of course, didn’t help that interest rates around the world were going up. At the same time, you know, the Fed moved just hours before. And therefore, it just creates this incredible cocktail that explodes in their faces. They were surprised because they were a little bit high on their own supply, as one might say, high on power. And then there was this rapid retreat.

Sebastian Payne
Now, at this time, what I also want to mention Labour party conference, because the Tory conference was a very weird event this year and obviously became completely irrelevant as the Truss government collapsed. But Labour conference was a very different beast in Liverpool and it really felt as if the party was ready for a much more organised event, much more disciplined event. And of course from the fall of Boris Johnson onwards, we’ve seen the steady rise of Labour in the polls, of Keir Starmer becoming more and more popular and eventually becoming the person who’s on that crucial polling lead of who would make the best prime minister.

Robert Shrimsley
I mean, it was a very odd conference and this happens from time to time (unintelligible). You go to a party conference of a party that’s not in government and all of the action is somewhere else. And you’re just watching, slightly detached as things disintegrate somewhere else in the world. But what was really striking, I mean, I remember going to one of the parties on the last or penultimate night of the conference, and there’d been an opinion poll that came out with gave Labour some enormous pink polling lead. Was it 20 per cent?

Jim Pickard
Seventeen.

Robert Shrimsley
Seventeen per cent.

Jim Pickard
The Tories were down to 19 points in our poll, I think.

Robert Shrimsley
You’d move from one to the other. Some of the, you know, significant names, the shadow cabinet and the Greens. They couldn’t hide the Greens. They absolutely believe. I think to me that conference was the moment the people in the Labour party started to believe they could actually win the next election. When you talk to Labour people since then, they’re all suddenly consumed by a fear they could blow it again because there’s a long time to go. The fear is really palpable among Labour people, but that was the moment, I think that all of the people around Keir Starmer suddenly thought, “Hang on, we could do this”.

Sebastian Payne
Now, Miranda, the Tory party with its typical ruthlessness moved against Liz Truss because after the mini-Budget disintegrated, Kwasi Kwarteng was fired. And as George and I wrote about in the FT recently, we landed back from the IMF conference and read on Twitter he’d been fired and goes and see Liz Truss and she says, “I’m sorry, I don’t need your services”. And he says, “Yes, I know, I just read on Twitter”. So very odd events.

Miranda Green
Fun and games, yeah.

Sebastian Payne
Fun and games. Then Graham Brady goes to see her and says, “Look, it’s over. You know, you’ve got no support. You know, if you want us to, we can change the rules, we can heave you out or you could just go”. And ultimately she does just go. And this is what she says on the steps of Downing Street after just 49 days as prime minister.

Liz Truss
And our country has been held back for too long by low economic growth. I was elected by the Conservative party with a mandate to change this. We delivered on energy bills and on cutting national insurance. And we set out a vision for a low-tax, high-growth economy that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit. I recognise though, given this situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative party.

Sebastian Payne
So Liz Truss goes out, Miranda, I think to the surprise of no one, and in comes Rishi Sunak. But it wasn’t that straightforward. It could have been Penny Mordaunt. Or it could have been Boris Johnson.

Miranda Green
I know, what can you say really about this year? You wait for prime ministers for ages and then three come along at once! The thing is, Rishi Sunak, of course, has already failed over the summer period to convince the Tory party membership. So he had that slight air of coming back from defeat to try and convince them a second time. But he was blessed in his opponents, shall we say. But I think when you look at the backdrop as well, because of that disastrous mini-Budget, the Conservative party was realising that they were sacrificing the one thing that has always stood them in good stead with the British electorate, which is a reputation for being able to run the economy properly. And so I think the Tory party realised that they had to kind of come to their senses and reject this fantasy economics that Truss and Kwarteng had represented. And even though over the summer they had not really liked the Sunak pitch that much, and he was talking a bit too much reality for their liking, the markets had delivered this appallingly severe lesson that you have to actually have plans that add up. Robert’s talking about that different atmosphere at the Labour party conference. If the backdrop to that is the whole nation doing what we normally just do at the FT, which is watching the tickers about the level of the pound and what the bond markets are doing to our ability to borrow money to fund our government plans. Then you’ve really got a government, an economic crisis. And so Rishi Sunak’s kind of air of being reasonable and righting the ship suddenly look more appealing.

Jim Pickard
It’s very easy to forget how close Penny Mordaunt got to becoming prime minister. You know, in retrospect, she seems like a sort of also-ran. But I think Boris Johnson basically making it clear that he might come back from his holiday retreat in the Caribbean, galvanised, led of his supporters to gather something like 100 MPs who were prepared to back him. If he hadn’t done that I think a lot of those people would have got behind Penny Mordaunt and instead, her campaign lost momentum. She did get pretty close to 100 or maybe 100 on the Monday morning, but it was basically not enough. And she called it a day. Things could have been very, very different because we still don’t know whether if you put Mordaunt against Sunak with the Conservative membership, which way they would have jumped.

Sebastian Payne
Well, ultimately Boris Johnson did not run. And then ultimately Rishi Sunak becomes PM by default because as you said Jim, Penny Mordaunt got about 90-odd names and I think George was involved in some independent verification of those names to prove this was actually the case. So he becomes PM in November and he stands outside Downing Street with a nice tribute to his predecessor.

Rishi Sunak
I’d like to pay tribute to Liz Truss for her dedicated public service to the country. She has led with dignity and grace through a time of great change and under exceptionally difficult circumstances, both at home and abroad. I am humbled and honoured to have the support of my parliamentary colleagues and to be elected as leader of the Conservative and Unionist party.

Robert Shrimsley
I think it’s worth noting just how, in all the extraordinary aspects of the Truss interregnum, as I guess we’ll have to think about it, not only was it catastrophic in every respect for her and all the people who believed that, but it was doubly so because the ultimate impact of her government was to embed every single policy ideal that she opposed. So she embeds Treasury orthodoxy by attempting to trash it. She brings Rishi Sunak to power by rubbishing his legacy. Some of the things that she wanted to do less headline issues around liberalisation, be it around planning or whatever, were quite good ideas. But they’re falling too.

Miranda Green
Well, around immigration.

Robert Shrimsley
Around immigration, it’s a very good point. The extraordinary thing about the Truss government is not only the amazing way it implode but the way it actually destroys everything it is attempting to achieve and embeds all of the opposite. I don’t actually think Truss government is going to be a footnote in history because I think we’re gonna be studying it for years to come for its extraordinary impact.

Jim Pickard
Her demise most definitely gave Rishi Sunak a much clearer edge of what he stands for, ’cause in the summer he didn’t look like he stood for . . . 

Robert Shrimsley
What is straight, I mean you, where you want to come to power is as the person the country wished it had. Oh my God we made a terrible mistake not picking Rishi Sunak is a great way for Rishi Sunak to arrive in power.

Sebastian Payne
And now, Miranda, finally it’s the last two months of the year. Really, things have definitely calmed down after everything we’ve just been through that we had the Autumn Statement where essentially the whole thing was reversed finally that Liz Truss did. And then you had the efforts to fill the £70bn black hole, which we devoted the many fantastic pieces and podcast to talk about how that would be done with some very eye-watering tax rises, but also spending cuts put in the future. But the markets accepted it. And life is in terms of Westminster has calmed down a little bit since then. We’ve still got much bigger issues in the country will come on to. But I’ve actually been quite amazed at how not Tory MPs of valid grounds even though many of them particularly on the right party do not like Sunak at all, and in private will tell you that the rebellions and the arguments we’ve had on planning and on onshore wind about the economic situation. They’ve not been that serious and the Government’s managed to navigate them through. And of course will come on to next year in a minute. But it feels like he’s sort of, he’s surviving at the moment, which is pretty much the best he could ask for.

Miranda Green
Well, two months without an existential crisis in the Conservative party is record breaking in itself for this year. So that’s true. I mean, both Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor, they both have a strong kind of school prefect energy, do they not? So, you know, there is a sort of reassuring feeling.

Robert Shrimsley
Tell me how it was. He was head boy at Charterhouse.

Miranda Green
You can absolutely tell. Look at him going.

Jim Pickard
Was Rishi head boy at Winchester?

Sebastian Payne
Good question.

Robert Shrimsley
He was, I think. Yes.

Jim Pickard
There you are.

Miranda Green
So there we are. So, even though if you are perhaps not a Conservative supporter, you wouldn’t necessarily say that the right grown-ups are in charge, at least the sort of head boys are in charge, which is sort of reassuring. And also, of course, what happened with the second Tory leadership election? The fact that it didn’t go to the membership, this is exposed that the Tory MPs don’t actually trust their own members. So in a sense, the Tory leadership now and the MPs are all in it together against their own membership, but on behalf of the country at least sort of settling things down. They have got enormous problems to deal with, however. You know, there’s still war in Ukraine, there’s the energy price crisis, there’s public services collapsing all around us. There’s a wave of strikes over the winter. Pick your crisis. So what might cause them serious difficulties going forward?

Sebastian Payne
Yes, to Jim, as we end 2022, I mean, the general sense that Britain is slightly falling apart and not working is completely everywhere, that it feels like the fact we’ve got all these strikes that are ongoing at the moment, which is disrupting everyone’s Christmas. We’ve been talking in the past couple of weeks, the podcast, you’ve got the small boats issue, which is dominating a huge amount of time for the prime minister, very acutely aware of the potential of human tragedy, but also the impact on the Conservative party’s poll ratings. And it feels at the moment that, you know, the Sunak government has got some, as I said, political stability, but the crises are absolutely enormous. And going into 2023, I think there’s big questions about how it’s going to tackle them. And does it have the plan, the capacity to actually see through a meaningful change before the next election, which we all assume is going to be in late 2024?

Jim Pickard
When we think about Rishi Sunak’s prospects for the 2024 election, the things that act in his favour are that he has the kind of youthful energy, he fits the parts. He is a much better communicator than Keir Starmer, I would say. And secondly, all the reasons why an awful lot of people hate the Conservative party at the moment, ie castigates Boris Johnson’s foibles, Liz Truss’s mini Budget. As we go ahead, the sense that these will recede somewhat, but every month we move away from them. Rishi Sunak can talk about it being a new government, but the things that, the challenges he face are absolutely huge, as you suggest. And they are, of course, the wave of strikes, the continuing situation in Ukraine, what that does to energy bills, the fact that the energy bill support’s going to have to run out in just over a year and then trying to extend that would cost an absolute fortune. And then fifth but possibly biggest of all, everyone’s mortgage is going through the roof and in turn, everyone’s rents going through the roof and of course, the boats as well, the small boats you mentioned, if you look at the mortgage situation and what that could do in terms of accentuating the economic recession we face, there’s almost nothing the government can do. I cannot see them finding some sort of scheme to support people’s mortgages. Mortgages going through the roof is probably the biggest thing that could do for this government, I think, because this is something that cranks up over the next couple of years and we won’t see it going the other way for a long time.

Sebastian Payne
And finally, Robert, open up your crystal ball first. Let’s look forward to your views on 2023, on what is going to dominate, because as we said, there’s a huge amount of stuff to do and this kind of calm in Westminster won’t last. Is it simply just a downward trajectory now for the Conservatives towards the election? Could there be any kind of bounce back? And where do you think things lie for Labour?

Robert Shrimsley
It’s much easier to pose the questions than it is to be sure about the answers. I think there are two issues.

Sebastian Payne
I oppose them.

Robert Shrimsley
Absolutely. For me, there are two big questions which unlock all of the others. So the first is where we’re standing by, say, the end of January on public sector strikes, because there is clear that the cabinet, I think, is fairly united about trying to tough this one out. It’s a comfortable position for Conservatives. You’ve faced down the unions, you hold down the pay bills. So, like intellectually comfortable taking this position. I think, a big question is going to be how they feel they’ve done come January if they think they’ve faced down most of the worst of the strikes. If public opinion is switching towards them on the strikes, they’re going to begin to feel a bit more confident about themselves, bit more confident in their arguments. MPs will start to feel a bit more confident in Rishi Sunak, because although they are sort of behind them, it’s very, very shallow support. If he has a good public sector strikes, then he’s in a better position as we head towards the May elections, which will also be a big test for him. To me, however, the biggest variable as we head into the second half of the Parliament is what Labour can do to attempt to clinch the deal with voters. Because I think we’re in a place now where the country has actually decided they are quite ready to get rid of the Conservatives, that they’ve had enough. What they haven’t decided is they’re ready to put in the Labour party. And so, although Starmer has done a great deal to detoxify Labour and to remove all the Corbyn baggage that he said, and he’s done some really good job on that and gone far further, far faster than I thought he would be able to do.

Sebastian Payne
Absolutely.

Robert Shrimsley
What he hasn’t done is sell himself to the country positively. His pitches, it’ll be OK. You don’t have to worry about me. And that’s, that’s good. That’s a start. Has to happen. I don’t think he’s sold a deal to the country that says vote Labour and we will make things better because it’s absolute hell now. And I don’t think there’s any sense the voters have a positive energy towards Labour rather than just a negative energy towards the Conservatives. So to me, the question is, can he do that in 2023? If he can, then I think it is downward trajectory for the Conservatives and irreversible. If he can’t, then they’re still in with a shot.

Jim Pickard
I mean, if you take three of the biggest issues facing at the moment, Labour doesn’t actually have any answers, so it doesn’t have any different answers on what’s there about the strikes in terms of pay settlements. It doesn’t any longer have a different energy policy because it did have a windfall tax. The Tory government now has an even bigger windfall tax and on mortgages which were I was talking about a second ago, Labour has little or nothing to offer at all.

Miranda Green
I agree with all of that and all I would add on Labour is that I’ve picked up this terrible phrase during the World Cup commentary, which I think is very applicable to Keir Starmer’s predicament at the moment, which is they seem to lack quality in the final third, which I have come to understand as being unable to actually win under the rules of the game.

Sebastian Payne
And I’m just gonna conclude . . . 

Robert Shrimsley
It could be very messy.

Sebastian Payne
I think, they’ve only final four. I will have to agree with all that you’ve just said as well is that I don’t buy this idea we are just going to waft towards a general election two years out with nothing else major happening that given where we seem to be in the political and economic cycle at the moment. We’ve had so many events this year, we’ve just gone through that something else is going to happen in the next two years and that will knock all of our predictions off. But for the very last time, George, Miranda and Jim, thank you very much.

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Robert Shrimsley
So I do think, however, before we go, we have one last big news story of the year. The big shock development of the year which was obviously your own departure Seb, for the world of Tory think tank-dom. It’s actually, it’s been a great relief, I think, to many in the country who’ve been concerned that we haven’t had enough journalists in politics. You know, we’ve lost Boris Johnson, you know, the flag bearer of journalism in politics. And Michael Gove, you know, could be coming towards the latter stages of his career. So, those of us who support the journal crusade, are obviously thrilled to see that you are going out into the world to take this forward and is it worth the bull was a come loose from the back of the scrum, you’re there to pick it up.

Sebastian Payne
Well, I remember Boris Johnson once said he had as much chance of reaching high office as being reincarnated as an olive. So I could say I have as much chance of success in the public realm as being reincarnated as Boris Johnson.

Robert Shrimsley
But the question is, do you believe it as much as Boris Johnson believed it? Because he clearly didn’t believe it very much.

Sebastian Payne
Well, he still . . . 

Robert Shrimsley
What are you thinking? You’ve got a wonderful existence here at the FT. Much respected, much liked, going off to the only profession in the world that is viewed more lowly than journalism. What from earth possessed you to do this?

Sebastian Payne
Well Robert, I’ve had such a fantastic run at the FT, it’s been seven years since I first joined, and we’ve been doing this podcast for six and a half years. And as I may have mentioned a couple of times, I’ve written two books in that period as well, as well as columns and articles not getting round to reading them . . . 

Robert Shrimsley
Let’s get round to reading them. (laughter)

Sebastian Payne
Exactly. But I think my general view on this is, is that the UK faces huge, huge challenges and we’ve been talking about them and writing about them for a long period of time. And Onward, the think-tank that I’m going to, was started in 2017 after the election that Jeremy Corbyn almost won. To look at this point of “Hang on a minute. On the centre right, there is a big lack of new ideas and big lack of thinking”. It felt at that point as if all the action was elsewhere in politics. And I think since the five years Onward has existed, it’s done some very, very good work on everything from net zero to science and technology . . . 

Robert Shrimsley
Hey, come on we’re not, we’re not a sponsorship programme.

Sebastian Payne
No it’s not. (laughter) But in explaining why I am doing this and I think that, we’ve got two years now to the next general election and as we’ve just been talking about with our colleagues, there are some big gaps about what the Conservative party is for, what the Sunak government is for. And I think there’s a great opportunity for some new ideas and I think going to Onward to do that, to step a little bit away from the day to day news, a little bit more brain space to look at some of these bigger issues, which is a really exciting opportunity and the opportunity to try and run something.

Robert Shrimsley
Of course step. Not as long as something small before you step on and run something larger. It is notable that people from Onward have, have, have a bit of a track record of going into the House of Commons, the House of Lords or Downing Street. So which of these is your preferred destination?

Sebastian Payne
Well, Robert, what I would say is that I’ve got a fantastic new job, and that is my singular focus for the next couple of years as we’ve and there’s not that much time left before the election, and that’s entirely where I’ll be thinking about things at the moment.

Robert Shrimsley
That’s so tremendous! I can hear you on the Today programme, not answering questions already. A tremendous performance.

Sebastian Payne
I’ve got another three of a variant. If you would like to hear.

Robert Shrimsley
Let’s hear your three variants. C’mon let’s hear those three variants..

Sebastian Payne
So you stole the first one, which is there are already too many journalists in public life and we don’t read them all already at the moment. And in all seriousness, I think think-tank world is something that I’ve interacted with, you’ve interacted with a lot, and it does have some similarities with both public life in terms of the House of Commons and also with journalism. And I do hope to keep doing media, to keep writing. I might even still pop up on this podcast occasionally if you ever have me. And I just do think that the moment we’ve not talked enough about ideas in politics, that as we rattle through 2022, it’s all just been about personalities and people messing things up. And it requires to have a crack through Onward to make sure we don’t mess things up entirely.

Robert Shrimsley
You almost want us to have a crack at messing it up yourself, and I’m sure we’re all going to miss you deeply.

Sebastian Payne
Well Robert, on that very cheerful note, that’s it for the last time for this episode of Payne’s Politics. If you like the podcast, then please do subscribe and keep subscribing. You can find us through all the usual channels to receive episodes as soon as they’re released. And as you know, we love positive reviews and nice ratings.

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Payne’s politics was presented by me, Sebastian Payne, and produced by the wonderful team of Anna Dedhar and Howie Shannon. Any podcast is only as good as the people behind the control desk. And Anna in particular has had a wonderful job over the past six and a half years, even when I’ve turned up late, being very irritating and lost my place in the script. The sound engineers were the brilliant Breen Turner and Jan Sigsworth. So that’s it for me. Payne’s Politics will be back in 2023 with a new name and a new host. But until then, have a very happy, festive season. And thank you, as always, for listening.

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