Artillery Row Sketch

Sunak Mirror

Charlie Brooker couldn’t imagine anything so bleak as the Conservatives in 2023

Up in the public gallery, the comedian Charlie Brooker looked down on the House of Commons. His TV series Black Mirror asks viewers to imagine dystopian near-futures with characters trapped in living nightmares. He was watching Rishi Sunak, a prime minister who is the only person in Britain who can see that the country is an earthly paradise. 

when Sunak looks in the big red binder he carries everywhere, he is reassured

All around him are people complaining about polluted rivers, collapsing schools, and children growing up in poverty, but when Sunak looks in the big red binder he carries everywhere, he is reassured of the great truth: that we are lucky to be here and, most of all, very lucky indeed to have him. Sometimes, as he lies awake late at night, a dangerous thought crosses the prime minister’s mind: what if the binder is wrong, and everyone else is right? But no, that can’t be. The binder wouldn’t lie.

Keir Starmer has access to alternative facts. He opened Prime Minister’s Questions by asking about the terror suspect who had escaped from Wandsworth Prison last week. Sunak tore his eyes away from his binder. The public should be reassured, he said, that such escapes were “extremely rare”. We can look forward to a government social media campaign: “Most Suspected Terrorists Not Escaping”.

The Labour leader accused the prime minister of “presiding over mayhem” in the justice system. Sunak flicked to the back of the binder, where there may have been some reassuring statistics about how unmayhemy the prisons are. Most Lags Not Shivved, or something. He had a comeback, though. In the dark old days of the last Labour government, prison escapes “were almost 10 times higher!”

This was greeted from the Conservative benches with a huge “HAH!” Three Tory women, sitting together in matching cream jackets, even waved their order papers, as though in a coordinated outburst of spontaneous admiration. Has the prime minister got a backing group? The Sunakeenies? The Rishettes? Cheerleading is hardly a novel concept in the Commons, but the introduction of costumes would raise it to a new level.

Starmer turned his attention to Chinese spies. The Times reported on Wednesday that MI5 had warned the Tories that two people applying to be candidates might actually be spies. Though given the impact the average Conservative MP has had on the country over the past decade, it’s hard to imagine any of them could have been much more damaging if they’d been working for an enemy power. The Labour leader pressed the prime minister on whether the government had been complaining about Chinese attempts to infiltrate parliament before the weekend’s story of an arrested researcher. 

Sunak replied that his government “has put in place the most robust policy that has existed ever in our country’s foreign policy.” Given that in 1860 an expeditionary force marched on Beijing and burned the summer palace to the ground, this seems an overstatement. What was more, the prime minister went on, “we have launched a whole new integrated review refresh of our China strategy”. This was greeted with a sarcastic “oooh!” from opposition MPs. 

But Sunak’s binder had more comebacks. Starmer, he pointed out, had once claimed to be “100 percent behind” Jeremy Corbyn, a man who wanted to abolish the army and leave Nato. “It’s clear what he did,” Sunak said, reaching a crescendo, “he put his own political interests ahead of Britain’s!” This was greeted with a great “YEEE-AHHH!” on the Conservative benches. The Rishettes waved their papers again. It’s amazing enough that there are 300 people in the country who believe “backing an obviously unsuitable leader makes you unfit to be prime minister” is a wise line for Sunak to pursue, but frankly astonishing that all of them are Tory MPs. We must hope and pray that they try this during the election in front of people who can still remember Boris Johnson. 

Starmer had his own prepared line on Sunak and China: “Yet again, Inaction Man failed to heed the warnings.” Labour loved that. The prime minister less so, staring very intently into his binder. It is an excellent insult: vivid, memorable, and telling an unflattering story about an opponent. 

Sunak would in fact make an excellent poseable figure: he has hair that could be sculpted from plastic, well-defined limbs, and a binder accessory. Other outfits are available: the Chancellor of the Exchequer set comes with a suitcase full of cash for Barbie’s hair salon-turned-PPE supply firm, a copy of the Great Barrington Declaration, and a long resignation letter that doesn’t explain why he’s resigning. The Tech Bro edition has tiny cans of Mexican Coca-Cola. 

In the public gallery, Brooker leaned forward with interest. A real live politician, transformed into a child’s toy to be dressed up, insulted and then chucked aside. There’s an episode in that.

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