I sat through the Prime Minister’s somnolent appearance in front of the Liaison Committee – parliament’s pre-eminent committee, made up of all the select committee chairs – on 4 July so you could do something more interesting.
At the start, Bob Neil MP noted that he and his colleagues were leading an inquiry into how to make select committees effective. The following 90 minutes were a perfect example of what not to do. Chivvied on by an uncharacteristically laconic Bernard Jenkin, the committee chair, each questioner had no time to develop a proper line of questioning or even hear Sunak’s full reply. The PM’s microphone kept misfiring, twanging every few minutes like an impatient clock.
With her allotted minutes, the chair of the Treasury Committee Harriett Baldwin repeatedly asked the PM to put a percentage on the likelihood that inflation will halve – one of his five priorities for this year. This was bizarre and a waste of time. No sane politician would volunteer such a figure. It’s gotcha journalism from a senior MP responsible for scrutinising the government’s most powerful department.
To give you a flavour of how unilluminating the session was, listen to the Prime Minister’s response to a question about the government’s plans for its presidency of the UN Security Council. He said, speculatively, “I would imagine that we will continue to focus on highlighting what’s happening in Ukraine and Russia’s illegal invasion.” In reality, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, said two days ago she would host the Security Council’s first-ever discussion on AI, alongside debates on sexual violence, Syria, Ukraine and expanding the council’s membership.
The Tory MP and Public Administration Committee chair Will Wragg injected some much-needed levity with a series of questions about the honours system, while Labour’s Chris Bryant, of the Standards Committee, hit Sunak with righteous anger over the PM’s failure to announce policy in the House of Commons.
The one consequential segment I noticed was the Prime Minister’s comments about the global AI summit that the UK is hosting in the autumn. In contrast with suggestions in the media that it will create an equivalent to the powerful International Energy Agency (IEA), Sunak played down the potential of the meeting:
“In the first instance, mainly what we’re trying to do is acknowledge that there is a global dimension to this challenge… I think it’s quite early thinking. As I said, it’s more about just bringing people together… who are thinking about these things in a similar way, and just to exchange ideas and share information.”
While the PM will always want to lower expectations, his comments that we are a “long way from” an AI-equivalent IEA should end assumptions that the summit will lead to a paradigm shift in AI regulation.
Sunak’s time in front of the Liaison Committee was unenlightening. Understandably you might say, and like everyone else in Westminster, the Prime Minister looked tired. But he also seemed lackadaisical, frustrated and glazed. Recess beckons.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.
[See also: The New Conservatives will damage Rishi Sunak]