Total lack of recall

Taking a walk down memory wilderness with Rishi Sunak

Artillery Row

IQ of 145 and can’t remember? Scientists report that sudden memory loss can afflict people in all walks of life, rendering them completely unable to recall names, faces, or crucial interventions on matters of public policy. 

Take Rishi (his real name). He’s prime minister of a large service economy on the edge of Europe. You might see him in the first class cabin, jetting off to his holiday home in Santa Monica, or climbing into a helicopter to nip up to an out-of-town meeting. He’s a picture of success and dynamism. But try asking him what he was doing in 2020, and a blank look will come across his face. “I can’t remember any specificities,” he might reply. Or “I don’t have any strong recollections.”

And so it was at the Covid Inquiry. Regular watchers have learned that “I don’t recall” is the best answer for any witness who senses that the ice beneath them is getting thin. It’s impossible to prove someone is lying when they say it, and it’s a lot safer than denying something that you’d rather not admit. 

Rishi Sunak deployed it pretty much from the moment he sat down at the Covid Inquiry, after explaining that he had been sadly unable to hand over any of his phone messages. He had changed his phone “multiple times” since 2020, he said. We didn’t find out how he’d come to get through so many devices. Had they all tragically gone to the bottom of the North Sea, or does he assume you just buy a new iPhone when the one you’re using runs out of battery?

Tragically, each time he’d smashed an old phone with a heavy magnet before cutting up the SIM card and distributing the parts into bins across Westminster, the messages on them had somehow got lost. Once, I recalled a time when his office was briefing that he was a “tech bro” who got the modern world. And then it struck me that, just possibly, losing all evidence of his activities in a tricky time might suggest that he’s not quite as bad at politics as we’d all assumed. 

Hadn’t he been told, inquiry counsel Hugo Keith asked, to hang onto messages because he’d have to disclose them? “I don’t recall anyone in my office making that recommendation or observation to me at the time,” he replied. We had barely been going five minutes. 

In the six hours that followed, the prime minister would be unable to recall when he had changed phones; what analysis he was shown about the NHS in the run-up to lockdown; the meeting where lockdown was agreed; what views he’d had about lockdown; the process for reopening schools and businesses; a meeting where he’d argued for reopening the economy; being told, twice, that plans for ending lockdown were judged risky; being told that his Eat Out To Help Out scheme was causing problems; what view he’d expressed about a second lockdown; conversations about funding social care; and the decision-making around the end of free school meals, or his view. On this evidence, I wouldn’t offer a large advance for his memoirs.

But we had only scratched the surface of his ignorance. Keith asked about an interview Sunak had given to the Spectator during the first Conservative leadership campaign of 2022. The context was that Sunak had been losing badly to Liz Truss, and had wanted to reassure Tory members that he, too, was a dangerous lunatic. To this end, he’d sat down to discuss the pandemic. In this conversation, Sunak’s memory had been rather more detailed, somehow. He could remember all sorts of things, mainly that he had been a lockdown-doubter right from the start. 

According to the Spectator’s write-up, there hadn’t been much evidence of this because he hadn’t wanted to leave a “paper trail”. What, Keith asked, had he meant by that? Sunak squirmed. Those hadn’t been his words. The Spectator, in what appears to be a genuine effort to help the prime minister, dug out its transcript of the interview, which confirm that it was very much his meaning. 

Sunak explained that he hadn’t wanted to be disloyal to the government. In those early days, he said, he’d been so busy that “I saw the prime minister probably more than I saw my own wife.” Equally Boris Johnson was working so hard that he saw Sunak more than he saw other people’s wives.

As the day wore on, Snippy Rishi … made more and more appearances

As the day wore on, Snippy Rishi, the prime minister’s tetchier alter ego, made more and more appearances. Of course he hadn’t told the scientists in advance about Eat Out To Help Out. He wouldn’t expect to discuss budget measures with them, any more than he’d discuss a VAT cut. Anyway, it had been a “micro” measure. Why were people still going on about stuff he’d done three years ago when he was trying to boost his public profile? It was so unfair. If the scientists had had a problem, he snapped they’d had “ample opportunity to raise these concerns”. Though only after the policy had been announced. 

As lockdown became unpopular with Tories during 2020, newspapers had been told that Sunak had got doubting scientists in to talk to Johnson. That reporting had been incorrect. “I wasn’t responsible for organising the meeting,” he clarified. He couldn’t explain what his officials had meant in emails because he hadn’t written them. 

He didn’t write the emails, he didn’t write the interview. He had given the interview, but he couldn’t explain it. He didn’t use WhatsApp much, he didn’t keep his messages, he didn’t keep his phones. He couldn’t recall what happened in the meetings or what he said or if he was present. 

And then, suddenly, pushed on the question of a second lockdown, he quoted verbatim a line the Deputy Chief Medical Officer had said in a press conference three years ago that supported his own position. It was a miracle! His memory was restored! 

It didn’t last. He was asked about providing free school meals to poor children. “I genuinely can’t recall the exact discussions.”

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