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The 2017 New Statesman A to Z of the political year

A snap general election, you say – what could possibly go wrong? Helen Lewis, Anoosh Chakelian, Stephen Bush and Julia Rampen report.

A is for Ariana Grande

As the first reports of a terror attack in Manchester on 22 May began to trickle in, it became clear that an Islamist had targeted young girls in particular: fans of the US singer Ariana Grande. In the days after the attack, which killed 22, a black ribbon with bunny ears – a symbol of the “Arianators” – came to define the city’s refusal to be cowed.

Two days later, the Mancunian poet Tony “Longfella” Walsh captured the rebellious spirit with his work “This Is the Place”, performed at a packed vigil in Albert Square. “They’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat all the dreamers and schemers who still teem through these streets,” he told the crowd. “Because this is a place that has been through some hard times: oppressions, recessions, depressions, and dark times/But we keep fighting back with Greater Manchester spirit.”

A month later, Grande returned to the city for a benefit concert that was defiantly upbeat. “Tonight has been filled with love and fun and bright energy,” she told the crowd. “So thank you for that.”

B is for badger strangling

With the EU referendum in the rear-view mirror, Ukip had a dire election result – its only MP, Douglas Carswell, had already left the party and it failed to replace him with any new Kippers in parliament. Overall, the party received just 594,068 votes, prompting the immediate resignation of its leader, Paul Nuttall. Out of a huge field of candidates – including the “anti-sharia law” advocate Anne Marie Waters – the surprising victor was Henry Bolton, a former soldier who seemed to lack the blowhard charisma of Nigel Farage and the fantasist banter of Nuttall. When asked by Russia Today if there were an initiation ceremony for Ukip leaders and, if so, whether he would strangle a badger with his bare hands, Bolton (pictured below) replied: “I could probably do that.”

C is for cough

Approaching her conference speech in Manchester, Theresa May must have been nervous: the consensus was that she needed a bravura performance to kill off doubts about her leadership. Unfortunately, the one thing she didn’t remember to take along was a cough sweet. After being interrupted by a prankster with a P45, she began to splutter and, eventually, her cabinet colleagues mustered a standing ovation while Philip Hammond rustled up a Strepsil, which she ate onstage. The final humiliation came when the letters began to fall off the slogan behind her. What happened was so harrowingly bad that it distracted from a bigger problem: the extremely thin content of the speech.

D is for drain covers

The One Show is arguably the BBC’s weirdest offering (yes, even weirder than This Week). Its tone veers from Super-Serious Social Issues to light-hearted chat about a rollercoaster for horses in a way that leaves the viewer with whiplash. But it was in this environment that Jeremy Corbyn gave his best TV performance of the election campaign. Following Theresa May (who had struggled through a “relatable” anecdote about shoes), the Labour leader effortlessly bantered about his gap year in Jamaica, his love of jam, keeping his front porch tidy and his interest in decorative drain covers. The presenters gave him a quiz in which the questions were hidden behind drain covers – which he aced.

E is for energy price cap

This was the year when Ed Miliband bought an LK Bennett dress and became leader of the Conservative Party – or so you would be forgiven for thinking if you had listened to many of Theresa May’s policy announcements. Many people, including the former Labour leader, noted the similarities between his speeches and May’s. One source of Tory angst was the energy price cap. Before 2015, the Tory line was that it was unacceptable Marxist intervention in the markets. Under May, it became Conservative policy. Then it was abandoned, un-abandoned and then, perhaps, abandoned again. Watch this space.

F is for Florence speech

After losing her majority and spending most of the year irritating her partners in the European Union, Theresa May flew to Florence in September to give a speech designed to heal wounds with the EU27.

Her concession on paying the UK’s outstanding liabilities – widely known as the “divorce bill” – and the need for a transition period went some way to repairing the damage. However, she rejected both a Norway-style deal (“a loss of democratic control”) and a Canada-style one (“a restriction on our market access”).

G is for Grenfell

The fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower in west London was the greatest domestic tragedy since the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster, when 96 football fans were killed in the crush. Seventy-one people died in Grenfell – a building supposedly designed to contain a fire in a single flat. The disaster prompted the resignation of the local council leader, and an angry crowd gathered when the Prime Minister visited the scene. The investigation into the spread of the fire is ongoing.

H is for Harvey Weinstein

The allegations in October about the sexual harassment perpetrated by the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein quickly led to a reckoning across other industries. The “Weinstein effect” gave dozens of women and men the confidence to speak out about how sex interacts with power in unpleasant ways. In Westminster, the then defence secretary, Michael Fallon, resigned for making inappropriate approaches to women, and several other MPs had the whip removed.

I is for Ivan Rogers

Ivan Rogers, a career civil servant who was the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, began a difficult year for Theresa May with a resignation email that leaked to the press on 4 January. He called on officials to speak truth to power, to “challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” and to “deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them”. He also warned that the British government was not ready for the withdrawal process, because “serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply”.

His remarks were taken as coded criticisms of May and her joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill (see N).

J is for jobs

In 2014, the then chancellor, George Osborne, memorably pledged to pursue a policy of full employment. It’s a promise he tried to keep even after leaving the Treasury – by filling as many jobs as possible himself. He has taken on seven roles, surprising Fleet Street by becoming the editor of the London Evening Standard – announced in March while he was still the MP for Tatton. (“Unless he is thinking about giving up sleeping, I just don’t see how it is feasible,” a baffled constituent said.) Osborne also advises the investment firm BlackRock, does private speaking engagements, chairs the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and is a fellow at the McCain Institute, a visiting fellow at Stanford and an honorary economics professor at Manchester University. It’s certainly one way to hit your employment targets.

K is for Kensington

On a night of extraordinary gains, Labour’s general election highlight was its victory in Kensington – the country’s richest constituency – for the first time. It followed unexpected triumphs in Canterbury, Battersea and Sheffield Hallam. Labour took Kensington in west London by 20 votes after three recounts, making it the last constituency to declare its result.

L is for Richard Leonard

When Kezia Dugdale quit as the leader of Scottish Labour one night in August 2017, Richard Leonard was sitting at home watching TV. After high-profile Corbyn allies ruled themselves out to become her successor, however, the recently elected left-wing MSP became the Chosen One. There were some early stumbling blocks, such as the fact that he didn’t use Twitter. He also had to sack his press secretary for accusing someone of “talking pish”. But these were overcome as McMomentum – also known as the Campaign for Socialism, Momentum’s Scottish equivalent – and almost every trade union swung behind him. The ex-GMB organiser narrowly beat the initial favourite, Anas Sarwar, in the vote among full members and supporters, but scored a resounding victory in the affiliated section. Dugdale’s gift to her successor was not a helpful one – she flew to Australia to join ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

M is for Martin McGuinness

At the age of 66, Martin McGuinness died on 21 March from a rare heart condition. Reactions to the former deputy first minister’s death were divided, with some unable to forgive or forget his long and brutal career in the IRA, and others describing him as instrumental to the Northern Ireland peace process. He had retired from his position in the Northern Ireland executive in January, leaving behind a collapsed government at Stormont – a crisis that remains unresolved.

N is for Nick and Fi

When Theresa May arrived in Downing Street, she brought with her not one but two powerful chiefs of staff – Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who had both worked with her at the Home Office. (Hill later became a lobbyist; Timothy was director of the New Schools Network, which helped set up free schools.) Both attracted a fearsome reputation, and in the wake of the election result, they were sacked following complaints from Tory MPs about their strategic and interpersonal shortcomings. Their replacement was Gavin Barwell, who lost his Croydon Central seat in June. So far, he has kept a far lower profile.

O is for “Oh, no, not another one!”

Unaware that she was about to become the voice of the nation, Brenda from Bristol (pictured below) was going about her day on a sunny April morning when a BBC journalist asked for her reaction to Theresa May calling the second general election in three years. “You’re joking,” gasped Brenda. “Not ANOTHER ONE?! Oh, for God’s sake. I can’t, honestly – I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?” Brenda from Bristol soon went viral, becoming the symbol of an electorate exasperated by the number of times it was being called to the polling booth. And so it transpired that a nation of Brendas swung from thrashing Labour in the local elections to depriving the Tories of their majority a month later.

P is for post-truth

The buzz phrase of the year, prompting no fewer than three books with the title. As 2017 ends, questions still linger about the extent of Russian misinformation on Facebook and Twitter, and its role in both the US election and the EU referendum.

Q is for quiet

Because of repair work to the Elizabeth Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben has fallen silent for the next four years. Conservative backbenchers have greeted this with considerable alarm. Even Theresa May weighed in on the issue, opining: “Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.” By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn was relaxed about bringing a little more quiet to Westminster. “It’s not a national disaster or catastrophe,” he told LBC.

R is for rebellion

In the days when Philip Hammond’s job mostly involved sassing his predecessor George Osborne, he unveiled a plan to hike Class 4 National Insurance contributions for the self-employed. Cue a revolt from freelance journalists, entrepreneurs and Tory MPs who had campaigned on a platform of promising not to raise it. After a week of Tory backbench rumblings, the Chancellor U-turned. Almost exactly a month later, the Prime Minister performed an even bigger U-turn – by calling a snap general election.

S is for sin

The Liberal Democrats went into the election with high hopes that they would benefit from a “Brexit bounce” as the unequivocally pro-European alternative to Labour. However, their pro-EU campaign was overshadowed by whether their then leader Tim Farron (pictured below) thought that gay sex was a sin or not. He took several weeks to decide that it was not, and in that time, many liberal voters went off him. The party ended the night with just 12 seats and the defenestration of Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam.

T is for Tristram

By January, two Corbynsceptic Labour MPs had announced that they would be quitting parliament midterm – Jamie Reed for a job in the nuclear industry and Tristram Hunt to be the high priest of the metropolitan elite (the director of the V&A). This triggered by-elections in the coastal Cumbrian outpost of Copeland and the Staffordshire seat of Stoke-on-Trent Central. Scheduled for the same day, 23 February, the votes were anticipated as a judgement on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. After more than 80 years of representing Copeland, Labour lost the seat to the Tories – but the then Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, failed to win in Stoke.

U is for Universal Credit

In the autumn, alarming noises were heard from both Tory and opposition MPs about the Cameron government’s flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit (UC). After years of pilot schemes, it was ready for a full roll-out. The flaws in the system – including an initial six-week wait for claims to be processed and the possibility of domestic abuse victims having to beg their partners for access to cash – became increasingly politically toxic. Charities warned that the policy of paying UC to claimants rather than landlords, coupled with the waiting time, was leaving thousands in rent arrears. Eventually, the clamour forced Philip Hammond to make a small concession in the Budget on 22 November: the waiting period would be cut by seven days.

V is for very large bung

When Theresa May lost her majority, there was only one party that could help her make up the numbers needed to get any legislation through the Commons: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Suddenly, commentators in Britain became experts on the priorities of the Northern Irish party, whose MPs had been mostly overlooked until then, even though they were instrumental in buttressing the Tories’ majority against rebels under David Cameron. Instead of a formal coalition, the two parties struck a looser arrangement, or “confidence and supply” agreement, with the DUP promising to back the government on confidence votes and Budget measures. However, the nuptials were not hassle-free. In an embarrassing gaffe, No 10 prematurely briefed that it had come to an agreement with the DUP before the deal was finalised. Eventually, the Tories bought their allies’ support with £1.5bn of funding for Northern Ireland.

There was, however, some pork barrel left over for the new Scottish Conservatives, with Philip Hammond announcing an extra £2bn for Scotland in his Budget. It was an acknowledgement that without the spirited campaign run by the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, which resulted in 12 Tory gains in Scotland, even a deal with the DUP would not have been possible. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon described the announcement as a “con”, prompting Davidson to reply that the First Minister was “acting like somebody has stolen her scone”.

W is for the White Stripes

If you’ve ever been in a football stand or at a teen house party since the early Noughties, you will have heard the distinctive opening bass riff of the White Stripes’ 2003 song “Seven Nation Army”. And now the thumping refrain has been resurrected – the roar of “Ohh, Jeremy Corbyn” was heard everywhere from the Glastonbury Festival, which Corbyn addressed, to the Labour party conference hall in Brighton. Even the deputy leader, Tom Watson, who wanted Corbyn ousted last year, sang it during his speech. It’s part of the new fandom growing around Corbynism, which even has its own lingo: “slugs” are political enemies, “melts” are centre-left commentators, “the absolute boy” is the 68-year-old leader, and “centrist dads” are patronising men hand-wringing about Brexit online. 

X is for a cross in the ballot box

Just before Easter, Theresa May went on a walking holiday to Wales. Somewhere between going to church and buying some slate coasters, she decided to call a snap election. (The 20-point Tory lead in the polls, the impending threat of another Scottish independence referendum and the frustrations of inheriting a Cameroon manifesto might have had something to do with it.)

May promised “strong and stable leadership”, adding: “Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger.” Although she revealed that she was so dull that the “naughtiest thing” she had ever done was run through a field of wheat, polls during the election campaign seemed to support her gamble. Labour was predicted to lose heavily. Then, to everyone’s surprise, young people, angry Remain voters and social liberals alienated by May’s “citizens of nowhere” rhetoric turned out and took away her majority.

Jeremy Corbyn basked in praise from his activist base, who felt justified in placing their faith in him and Labour. On the night, Labour lost eight seats but gained 36, including six from the SNP in Scotland, leaving it closer to power.

Y is for yuge

On Friday 20 January, the world finally had to accept that, yes, this was really happening. The inauguration of Donald Trump was a microcosm of his presidency so far: an aggressive and erratic speech about “American carnage”, an unseemly row with the media about the size of the crowd (not as “yuge” as Trump claimed), and the unsettling realisation that, no, George W Bush was not as bad as it could get. “That was some weird shit,” the former Republican president reportedly said after Trump’s speech. Indeed it was.

Z is for zombie PM

No one has been more cheered by Theresa May’s troubles than George Osborne, whom she sacked as chancellor after she became Prime Minister, telling her old rival to “get to know his party better”. On 11 June, Osborne had his revenge, calling May a “dead woman walking” during an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show in the immediate aftermath of the general election. The “zombie PM” label has since stuck. Severely weakened but still in Downing Street, May ends a turbulent year as one of the politically undead. 

Photos: Rex, Getty, BBC

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special