Britain’s political pundits were well aware that Monday might be a momentous day, following on the heels of the country’s lost Armistice weekend, which was best commended to oblivion.
Imagine their surprise, however, as they gathered in Downing Street to spot the arrivals at Number Ten for the anticipated reshuffle, when a big black car drew up and out stepped a political figure from the distant past. Judging by their astonishment, it may as well have been Churchill. It’s well known, after all, that a week is a long time in politics. Seven years is the equivalent of a geological epoch.
Fortunately, some of the pundits hanging around in the dingy old terraced street that day were old enough to recognise the familiar frown and ruddy complexion. “David Cameron?” they squealed, in utter disbelief, for verily it was he.
As he once famously said of an advisor who’d fallen foul of the law, ‘everyone deserves a second chance’ – but that was Andy Coulson, a former hack whose past, working for a tabloid newspaper, had caught up with him.
This second chancer was no less than the man who had called and lost the referendum on membership of the European Union. At the time, people who regretted Brexit had compared him to Lord North, the man who lost the American colonies.
So, it wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill political revenant they saw plodding purposefully towards his old pad. It was, some would say, the architect of the whole almighty mess that followed his downfall. As someone wittily remarked, he was back from the shed, referring to his shepherd’s hut, with its price tag of £25,000, to which he had withdrawn to pen his memoirs. As someone (less wittily) remarked, Daddy was home, meaning ol’ blue eyes was back to bring much-needed gravitas to the cabinet team, a grownup to join the kiddies around the table, oddly out of place, like a crooner in the age of round-the-clock rock and roll.
And yet, why not? After all, we live in a time when the Beatles can have a new single at number one in the pop charts, despite half the band members being dead. As for the elderly members of Abba, they can enjoy eternal youth as holograms in Stratford. Even Elvis, with the help of artificial intelligence, has taken to impersonating himself from beyond the grave and will never, ever have to leave the building. Given such examples of immortality, the real puzzle is why the Tories didn’t go all the way and give the task of running one of the great departments of state to baroness Thatcher.
There he was then, the ghost of Austerity himself, back in his old haunt. It was cat nip for the pundits, who couldn’t contain their excitement for the rest of the day. Sam Coates on Sky actually exclaimed “I mean what? What?”
It had been common knowledge that a cabinet reshuffle was in the offing, yet no one, however seasoned an observer, however privy to leaks and confidences, had seen this appointment coming. Added frisson came from the fact that Rishi Sunak, nicknamed ‘inaction man’ by his critics, simply wasn’t associated with such boldness.
They frantically dusted off the old phrases they had learnt at the knee of their grandsires: compassionate conservatism, that was one. Cameroons, as their predecessors had referred to the Notting Hill set. Yes, Notting Hill set, it was all coming back to them now. Didn’t he hug a hoodie once, or was that a huskie? Wasn’t there something about a sucking pig?
Out of a vagueness equivalent to the myth of Beowulf swam the image of a bygone epoch when the pundits were still at their desks in the PPE classes, or earlier in some cases, and the phrase “Daddy’s home!” still meant something.
The thing none of them could quite believe was that the story of the weekend, and indeed of long months before it, had been so abruptly eclipsed: that of a true-blue culture warrior ranting against the ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.’
Instead, Rishi had seized the narrative. That’s Rishi Sunak, the same man who the pundits said had no political nous whatsoever, was rubbish at comms, had madly declared himself a change candidate after thirteen years of Tory rule, etc, etc... that same Rishi Sunak, incredibly, had played a blinder.
Instead of the negative news that Suella Braverman, the outspoken Home Secretary, was gone, which reflected poorly on the Prime Minister’s appointment of her in the first place and his craven loyalty to her thereafter, the actual story of the day was ol’ blue eyes releasing his latest album. Incredible how swiftly the other story had been buried.
But then, in a way, it was the pundits’ own doing. Hadn’t they been predicting Braverman’s downfall for days now, till it already seemed like old news. By the weekend, everyone knew – even the Observer’s slowest-witted pundit, Andrew Rawnsley – that Suella was cruising for a bruising. It was obvious after she published that article in the Times that was entirely innocent of Number Ten’s editorial interference, despite a request for certain, let us say, modest redactions to be made. Surely, said Rawnsley, she would have to be sacked. Her boss had urged her to tone the language down, and she had flatly ignored him, labelling the Metropolitan Police too soft on protesters and claiming there was “a perception that senior police officers play favourites when it comes to protesters” and that they were tougher on right-wing extremists than pro-Palestinian “mobs”.
Because it was not just any old demonstration Braverman was objecting to. This was the one in support of Palestine, which she had already labelled a ‘hate march.’ The Prime Minister had also expressed a preference that it should not take place, as the weekend was traditionally dedicated to the commemoration of those who gave their lives defending the country in the two world wars. But – crucially – he had only met the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to voice his anxieties. He hadn’t questioned the man’s operational independence.
The Times article was not so coy. It went ahead and questioned the impartiality of the police. The implication was that Mark Rowley, head of the force and the most important copper in the land, was far too ‘woke.’ He could not be trusted to keep the peace on the streets because he turned a blind eye to supporters of terrorism.