As a general rule you are better off keeping quiet if you haven’t got anything much to say. Better to be thought a fool than open your mouth and prove it. Only, most politicians can’t help themselves. They regard any silence as a moral vacuum that needs to be filled. An affront to the natural order of things. Worse still, they believe they are actually improving the world by talking. The narcissistic delusion.
Just imagine the panic in Downing Street when word got out that Keir Starmer was planning to use the last week of recess to make a speech. The horror! The horror! The leader of the opposition having the opportunity to speak a lot of words which almost everyone will either miss or ignore, while the prime minister has nothing but dead air. The unbearable lightness of being.
So something must be done to head off the Labour leader. A room in east London booked. Preferably somewhere near where Starmer was due to speak the following day. Anything to take control of the narrative. Even if no one really had a clue what the narrative really was. This was about process not substance. Politics as performative arts. Politics at its most meta.
With the logistics sorted, all that remained was for Rishi Sunak to think of what the main thrust of his speech would be about. Anything that would make him look vaguely in control. As if he had a point, other than to just manage the inevitable decay. To fend off the free-floating feelings of futility.
Rish! sat down at his desk. New Year. Not so new him. He waited, tugging on the drawstring of his designer hoodie absent mindedly. Hoping for the Tech Bro inspiration for the nation. Nothing, nada.
He could try a reprise of his New Year message. Perhaps not. Telling people that the state couldn’t provide for everyone after a succession of Tory governments had taken a wrecking ball to it for the past 13 years hadn’t been quite the killer line he had imagined. Turned out that the UK just wasn’t that grateful for everything he had done for the country. There was no pleasing some people.
Strikes and the cost of living. Again, maybe not. He was sure that people were sick to death of hearing about them. And it wasn’t as if the government had any responsibility for sorting them out. They were just one of those things. Everyone knew the government had fully funded the NHS before nurses and paramedics had chosen to walk out for the first time in their history. That’s why waiting times in A&E had been reduced to a matter of minutes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of minutes. Yet another Brexit bonus. Just as Vote Leave had promised.
Then it came – extra maths lessons for everyone up to the age of 18! The one topic that had been on everyone’s lips over Christmas. You couldn’t walk round London or Birmingham without hearing someone stumbling over their eight times table. All those people being without the necessary numeracy skills to realise just how broke they were, or to switch off their heating before their homes were repossessed. Thanks to him, the country could experience its own bankruptcy in real time.
Genius! His speech was more or less sorted. Maybe he should mention some of the other stuff. But the maths was a gamechanger.
Less than 24 hours later Sunak emerged on stage at the former Olympics media centre in Stratford, London. In the audience was a posse of some stray Rish! acolyte MPs – John Glen, Laura Trott, and Kevin Hollinrake – and one outlier, Theresa Villiers. Even she looked surprised to be there. But then she always does. She’s a natural space cadet.
Rish spoke breathlessly and earnestly. And vacuously. If this wasn’t quite a suicide note it was at least a draft resignation letter. For it turned out he had almost nothing to say – nothing of substance – and could only offer a few vague promises. Much like an over-apologetic supply teacher. It was desperate stuff. His words dying on his lips. Lost in the aether.
New year was a challenging time, he began. No shit. Nothing escapes our prime minister. But he wanted people to know he wasn’t going to waste time playing politics. The irony – that the whole occasion was pure theatre designed to satisfy his ego – escaped him, if no one else there.
Things were going to get better. He had stabilised the economy. Yes. After the previous Tory government had crashed it. Thanks for nothing. But he had five promises. He would halve inflation. As would anyone as it was forecast to fall. He would grow the economy so that the recession would be marginally less deep. He would cut hospital waiting times by letting people die at home and in ambulances. He would cut the national debt by a tenner.
He would do something, he didn’t know what, about small boats. But it couldn’t be worse than what he’d already done. And he’d either deliver on his promises. Or he wouldn’t. He wasn’t that bothered which.
Then we were on to maths. Everyone would be numerate. Somehow. By osmosis presumably, as the government had been unable to meet its recruitment targets for maths teachers.
The rest of the speech was just a snooze. A series of wishful snapshots. Portraits of a grateful nation, giving thanks to a Tory government. All you need is love. Love is all you need. That and a few hundred million in the bank. Because Rish! was nothing if not one of us, a man of the people. We were all going to innovate our way to a better future and all that was needed was for us to believe.
He took plenty of questions from the media. But had precious little in the way of answers. Nothing on how to stop the strikes. Nothing of substance on waiting times and social care. He was a listening prime minster. Listening to himself. His door was open. But no one was allowed in.
But think of him as the country’s natural delivery man. Delivering things that were going to happen anyway. Under Rish! there would be no doubt that March would come after February. Because he was a man of his word. Making the tough decisions not to promote May ahead of April. A daydream believer.