Artillery Row Sketch

The ghosts of PMs past

No more smiles on a haunted Downing Street

“It has been a huge honour to be Prime Minister of this great country.” It seems like only last month that Liz Truss was making an awkward speech marking her arrival in Downing Street, and here we were again, for a tricky moment marking her departure. How would she go about it? The Hirohito approach seemed possible: “The political situation has developed not necessarily to my advantage.” 

Instead, the soon-to-be-ex-prime minister told us about her biggest highlight in office: “To lead the nation in mourning the death of Her Late Majesty The Queen after 70 years of service.” Look, we’ve all padded our CVs from time to time, of course, but if your main achievement as prime minister is that the monarch died on your watch, it might be best to leave the job off your LinkedIn profile altogether.

She gave a thoughtful look to the heavens. “From my time as prime minister,” she continued. What? All seven weeks? That’s not even enough time in a job to decide which is the best office loo. And then we realised. We were getting a final appearance from one of the parallel universe Liz Trusses, delivering a message from a timeline where her economic policies have ushered in two decades of peace and prosperity. 

“I am more convinced than ever we need to be bold and confront the challenges that we face,” she said. What Britain needs, she went on, is a programme of aggressive tax cutting and libertarianism. It takes quite some nerve, after you have set out your plans and been driven from office as a result, that the problem is that everyone else is wrong, but at least Truss is consistent. 

Her successor, we learned a little later in the morning, had a rather different assessment of the last two months. Rishi Sunak marched up Downing Street full of seriousness of purpose, and gave his own view of Truss’s achievements. “She was not wrong to want to improve growth in this country,” he began. “It is a noble aim. And I admired her restlessness to create change.” But…?

“But some mistakes were made.” You can say that again. And indeed he did: “Not borne of ill will or bad intentions. Quite the opposite, in fact. But mistakes nonetheless.” Ooof, he was labelling Truss as well-meaning but useless. If she didn’t leave prawns down the back of the Number 10 radiators, she must have been regretting it. 

And he wasn’t finished trashing his party’s record

And he wasn’t finished trashing his party’s record. “This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level,” he said, in what wasn’t so much a barely coded attack on Boris Johnson as one written in ten-foot high letters on Whitehall. “Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.”

“I will always be grateful to Boris Johnson for his incredible achievements,” Sunak went on, without immediately being able to call any of those achievements to mind. “I treasure his warmth and generosity of spirit.” We wondered if he was talking about a different Boris Johnson, a kindly Yorkshire neighbour, perhaps, rather than the vindictive ex-prime minister who had at that point declined to congratulate Sunak on his appointment. “I know he would agree that the mandate my party earned in 2019 is not the sole property of any one individual.” By now there was no question that he was talking about a different Boris. 

The vibes of the speech were very much a repudiation of Johnson’s cakeist approach to government, with talk of “difficult decisions to come”, but the substance was Johnsonian, in that the pledges were hard to argue with, but also hard to reconcile with each other. We all want better schools, hospitals and police, and indeed lower taxes and less government borrowing. Many of us suspect that having them all at once is tricky. 

Still, Sunak’s delivery was much improved on Monday, addressing the viewer directly, rather than staring off-screen so distractingly. It was an untriumphal entry, perhaps deliberately after yesterday’s jolly-Tory-party-games optics. There was no sign of Sunak’s family — the harassed-looking woman who accompanied him to the Palace, looking like a busy mum summoned to an emergency school meeting, was an aide. The message was Serious Man Getting Down To Serious Business.

His speech over, Sunak retreated to the front door and waved to the cameras, but declined invitations from photographers to smile. The time for smiling is over.

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