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  1. The Staggers
3 November 2023

Rishi Sunak’s softball interview with Elon Musk was embarrassing to watch

The Prime Minister acted almost as if he was interviewing for a job with the billionaire.

By Will Dunn

Earlier this week it was reported that the value of Twitter / X has more than halved since Elon Musk paid $44bn for the company a year ago. That’s not entirely true. Multiply the value of the stock recently distributed to X employees as part of their compensation up to the total value of the company and yes, you get $19bn. What this means, however, is that Twitter would now be worth $25bn less to someone else. To Elon Musk, its use value has increased, as we saw last night. Musk’s ownership of the platform secured him not only a seat among world leaders at the first multinational agreement on AI but a fawning, softball interview with our prime minister, conducted entirely on his terms.

From my seat in the long gallery at Lancaster House – the press, whom Musk despises, were relegated to the back rows on one side and denied the opportunity to ask questions – the interview made for uncomfortable viewing. As they sat down Sunak took off his jacket; given the conversation that followed, I’m surprised he didn’t offer to buff Musk’s shoes with it.  

The Prime Minister could not have done more to make the Tesla CEO comfortable. In an interview to which Musk’s platform was given exclusive broadcast rights (other TV channels were told they could use the footage from X), he opened by quoting Bill Gates’ comment that no-one had done more than Musk to push the bounds of science and innovation. A nice thing for anyone to say, he chuckled, but wow, Bill Gates! Musk smiled and did not mention his well-known verdict on Gates  (“categorically insane, and an asshole to the core”). 

“I agree with the vast majority of regulations”, claimed Musk, who has spent years fighting and ignoring financial and data regulators and who less than a month ago tweeted: “Our civilization is being slowly strangled to death one regulation at a time”.

Later they discussed truth, and Musk’s bold efforts to establish it in the world by staging a hostile takeover of a large social media platform, sacking its content moderation and abuse-tracking teams and allowing an army of grifters to push adverts for crypto scams into the news feeds of millions of people for $8 a month. Musk’s “community notes” system was described by Sunak as “the wisdom of the crowds”, but critics say it has allowed Russia to suppress reporting on the war in Ukraine.  

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Musk’s whackiest claims arrived when he told Sunak that AI, “the most disruptive force in history”, would create a society in which “no job is needed… we won’t have universal basic income, we’ll have universal high income… it will be an age of abundance.” Confronted by the prospect of fully automated luxury communism, Sunak didn’t ask where the energy or the materials would come from, on; he only laughed obligingly. 

The air at Lancaster House was thick with embarrassment: imagine Joe Biden or Ursula von der Leyen, or for that matter Ed Davey, toadying to a controversial businessman in this manner. 

So why did he do it? What was in it for Sunak? 

One theory is that this was an interview for a high-flying tech job for Sunak when he leaves politics – his Cleggacy, if you will. It did sound like that (many of Sunak’s lines were about how great his policies were or how well he’s dealt with a particular issue) but I suspect it has more to do with trying to hold on to his current job. 

A paper published this morning by the Policy Institute at King’s College London finds that 40 per cent of Conservative Leave voters now identify as “anti-woke” – a term that was largely unknown in 2019. Musk has long opposed the “woke mind virus”, as he calls it, and has more recently taken issue with green policies, which he claims add up to “extinctionism”. He has shown a willingness to shape the conversation on his platform as eagerly as any newspaper proprietor. Perhaps Sunak, who is campaigning on similar lines, sees Musk as a potential Murdoch – the man with the megaphone to motivate his base. 

[See also: Why are men so scared of robots?]

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