Davros man


It was the last day of term in the House of Commons, and although members weren’t allowed to bring in board games, there was in places a light-hearted air. Luke Evans, a Conservative, read out a speech that had, he revealed, been written by artificial intelligence. It was dreary and repetitive, but I’ve heard worse. Computers can now produce text at the level of a 16-year-old who’s going through the motions, which is more than some MPs will ever manage.

Over in Portcullis House at the same time, there was evidence that some British scientists have produced an artificial intelligence altogether more sophisticated, one that can produce answers at the level of a prime minister who’s going through the motions. Yes, it was time for Rishi Sunak to appear before the Liaison Committee.

This body, made up of the MPs who chair other committees, has produced some memorable sessions over the years. The last time it met, Boris Johnson was clinging on as prime minister, his government collapsing even as he gave evidence. This time the prime minister was secure, and it was the country that was on the brink of breakdown.

The day had begun with a health minister warning us not to do anything risky for the next couple of days, because there wouldn’t be any ambulances to help us. Nor should you count on being able to post a letter, buy antibiotics, sit your driving test or go anywhere. In some cases this is the result of industrial action or shortages, and in others it’s because you use Avanti trains.

“I’ve been doing this seven or eight weeks,” he explained, in his Winchester drawl

Was Rishi Sunak troubled by any of this? Not noticeably. He had the complacent air of a man for whom everything tends to turn out all right in the end. And why shouldn’t he? He lost the Tory leadership contest in September and was prime minister in October. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some are chased down the road by a greatness that is determined to thrust itself upon them. The two big interventions of Sunak’s political career were backing Brexit in 2016 and supporting Johnson in 2019. Neither has been a conspicuous success, but he’s one of those lucky fellows who has so far been immune to the consequences of his actions.

He was, to be fair, very plausible, in many ways the opposite of Johnson on these occasions. His hair – now showing a fitting strand or two of grey at the front – looked so immaculately sculpted that you could have used it as a miniature waterslide. He was wearing another of his very thin, neat ties and his beautifully tailored suits. His answers were brief and laden with detail: supply chain problems were limiting Britain’s help to Ukraine, he could list areas where Chinese companies had been kept out of the national security infrastructure. He had a binder in front of him, but he didn’t need to refer to it.

“I’ve been doing this seven or eight weeks,” he explained, in his Winchester drawl. He’d only just got here, and it would take him a little longer to fix everything. You could imagine him as a hedge fund salesman, explaining that although it did look rather like your investment had halved in value, everything was under control, and the managers had a plan for medium-term profitability.

Behind the prime minister sat a couple of aides who were somehow even more fresh-faced than him, along with an older assistant private secretary, who looked like he was a teacher from a top-flight public school escorting a small group of especially keen sixth formers. Young Sunak needed no support, though. His self-assurance is total.

His programmers might want to spend the Christmas break going over the empathy subroutines

He was polite in response to questions about the various issues MPs raised with him. Early years education, that was important. So was housing Ukrainian refugees, and so was keeping women in the workplace. And if you looked at what he’d been doing , you could see how seriously he took all these things, and everything else as well. Of course, there was always more that could be done, and he was in no way complacent.

But the scientists who built this artificial intelligence haven’t quite managed to get the facial expressions to match the words. “It’s sad that anyone needs a food bank,” he told Labour’s Stephen Timms, but the look on his face was one of bafflement. “If someone comes here illegally, we will have the right to remove them,” he beamed at the SNP’s Joanna Cherry, as though he was telling her she’d won the lottery.

Perhaps this is unfair. The chairman, Sir Bernard Jenkin, had asked the prime minister to give brief answers so that they could cover a lot of topics, which may explain his brisk manner. And Johnson could ham up sad, concerned eyes like any daytime soap opera star, but it didn’t mean much.

But 2023 will bring only trouble for Sunak: more strikes, more shortages, more difficult choices. Perhaps his charmed life will continue, and troubles will bounce off him as one imagines raindrops do off his hair. But just in case, his programmers might want to spend the Christmas break going over the empathy subroutines.

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