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23 December 2023

The Tories have had a dismal year

But at least, like the government, it’s nearly over.

By Jonn Elledge

As the nights draw in and the lights go on, and presents start to appear beneath the tree, the mind of the lazy political columnist inevitably turns towards one topic: exactly how this terrible, useless government has done over the course of this terrible, useless year. Alongside the surveys of the year in TV or music, or the guides to surviving Christmas that the same people write every year, the reviews of the year in Westminster inevitably pile up. 

It has not, in all honesty, been a vintage year for British politics. There has been no general election, no referendums, and no Conservative leadership challenge. (This last fact is particularly disappointing considering the year before brought two.) Local and by-election results alike strongly suggest that, soon enough, the Tories will be playing the part of the dinosaurs, and the British electorate that of the big, burning rock in the sky. It has all been, after the past few chaotic years, a bit dull. 

This should not fool us into thinking that the government has just been quietly getting on with the job, however. Rishi Sunak did, in February, sign the Windsor framework (a very slight improvement in the economic status of Northern Ireland, which the Prime Minister achieved through the novel means of talking to the EU rather than about them in the pages of the Daily Mail). Sunak has achieved his much-touted promise to halve inflation, so our living standards decline at a slightly slower rate, through the novel means of “just waiting”. Everything else on his pledge card, however, remains stubbornly undone. The small boats keep coming across the Channel; NHS waiting lists keep growing. Precisely no migrants have been deported to Rwanda, though on the upside Sunak has only spent £240m of our money and sparked a whole new civil war in the Conservative Party trying. 

Most of the excitement in politics this year, such as it was, came instead from the soap opera aspect of politics. Nadine Dorries, cheerfully throwing a firework into a quiet early summer Friday in Westminster, announced that she was so pissed off not to have been granted a peerage that she would be resigning to spend more time investigating why. And then – this was the best bit – spent months not resigning. Suella Braverman confirmed her Cruella de Vil bona fides after her speech at Tory conference by literally standing on the tail of a guide dog. Having spent much of the year spouting speeches with the subtext of “sack me you bastard, sack me”, the then home secretary looked genuinely baffled to discover, when it finally happened, that nobody who doesn’t edit a right-wing newspaper particularly seemed to care. The resulting reshuffle, at least, triggered previously unsuspected human emotions when parts of the political spectrum found themselves genuinely excited to see David Cameron

[See also: My father’s mother tongue]

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Most fun of all, though, were the moments when Sunak reminded us exactly why he has such a glittering future ahead of him, albeit in Silicon Valley and a very long way from Downing Street. His promise to abandon green targets, which were popular, to save voters money, which they hadn’t noticed they’d even have to spend. His decision to go to Manchester to announce the cancellation of a new train line to Manchester (but only after a week of pretending a decision that his team had spent ages enthusiastically briefing had not, in fact, been made). 

Best of all was the moment the Prime Minister – a man who had already approached previously unknown levels of competence with such complicated things as debit cards and petrol pumps – found himself literally locked out of Downing Street. In a twist The Thick of It would have thrown out as too unsubtle, he was standing next to Mark Rutte, the recently ejected prime minister of the Netherlands, at the time.  

It’s all very fun, if you like that sort of thing, which if you are reading this you probably do. But we shouldn’t let it distract us from what politics is meant to be about, and quite how badly that side of things is going. NHS waiting lists continue to grow. A significant minority of councils are on the verge of financial collapse. Schools and other public buildings, meanwhile, are on the verge of literal collapse, after a decade-long failure to replace concrete that has passed the end of its useful life. Wages and productivity have flatlined; the government has backed off from every reform that might improve the housing market, yet again. It is hard to find a metric on which this country is doing well. On most, it is going backwards. 

The Prime Minister is reported to have told a Christmas drinks party that next year is an election year. The chances of his hanging on until the last possible date and holding an election in late January 2025 always seemed minute, but we should be thankful, nonetheless. Rishi Sunak is doing his best – and Britain can’t take much more of it. 

[See also: The maverick of Fleet Street]

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