Artillery Row Sketch

We deep dive at dawn

NEW: The Critic Sunday read — what biscuits were eaten at Chequers on Thursday

The prime minister assembled his Cabinet at Chequers this week to discuss the government’s future — but what really happened? Find out in our deeply reported in depth deep dive long read.

By Robert Hutton, Bob Hutton, Rab Hutton, Robbie Hutton and R Hutton

As the cars, each of them with four wheels and an engine, rolled up the drive towards Chequers, the country house built out of bricks that has been a storied retreat of prime ministers since [someone check Wikipedia], the men and women sitting in the back of them breathed in. And then out. And then in again.

They climbed from their vehicles one by one and then walked on their feet in through the huge wooden doors, greeting each other with words such as “hello” and chatting about the journey, the weather and the week’s events. They took off their coats. Some of them, bladders full after the journey, nipped to the toilets. 

The Cabinet had arrived for their away-day, but they feared things had already got away from them.

As they sat around the table, or stood in groups or pairs, or leaned against chairs in a sort of half-sit, half-stand, the politicians talked about politics. According to multiple sources, the topics covered were the big issues facing the government: the stuff that’s in all the newspapers every day. 

Over coffee and tea, to which ministers added their own milk and sugar before taking biscuits from a plate that carried ginger nuts and digestives and custard creams, they discussed how things were going. The consensus was stark. 

Sunak could be seen taking detailed notes on a napkin

“Obviously things are going very badly,” said one Tory insider who had met many of the people who were present. “I mean, have you seen the news? Was there anything else you wanted to ask about?”

According to sources, Rishi Sunak didn’t pull any punches in his summing up: if things continued going badly, it would be bad. Things, he said, would have to start going better. And soon.

As they took that in, the Cabinet moved through to lunch, which according to a message sent to every journalist with a working phone consisted of [Rob can you do that computer thing where you put the words from the WhatsApp into the story, ta — R]. They ate it, just as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher had done so many times in this very room, off plates, using knives and forks. 

As they chewed and swallowed using their mouths, the prime minister’s political secretary James Forsyth offered his analysis of the state of public services. People, he explained, are often unhappy if they’re having a heart attack but they can’t get an ambulance. Forsyth also highlighted new research suggesting that voters dislike not being able to afford food. Sunak could be seen taking detailed notes on a napkin.

Afterwards, in a break between sessions, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove was spotted in a heated discussion with Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt about securing funding for his department. “The obvious way to win the election is just to give Michael all the money and let him figure the rest out,” said one person who asked not to be identified as Gove. “He’s the most successful — are you keeping up? I can slow down — and courteous minister in the government.”

His key message: ministers should simply start doing a good job

Then came the afternoon’s big presentation, as Isaac Levido, the Conservatives’ election strategist, set out the results of the party’s private polling, projecting them on a screen and pointing with his hands. “It shows pretty much the same thing as all the public polling,” explained someone familiar with the contents. “That’s how polling works.”

Voters, Levido explained, liked many of the things the government had promised to do. That came with a sting in the tail: the same voters were angry that those promises had turned out to be impossible to keep. His key message: ministers should simply start doing a good job. “He’s expensive,” said one person present, “but where else are we going to get this kind of insight?”

Summing up, Levido explained that although the Conservatives are 20 points behind in the polls and have spent three years running a government that resembles an orgy in a clown school, there was still a “narrow path” to election victory. “But then Steve [Barclay, the health secretary] pointed out that Labour were unlikely to bring Jeremy Corbyn back as leader, and Isaac went quiet.”

The day was rounded off with a light-hearted speech from former Foreign Secretary William Hague on his own experiences at the top of politics. “It was really inspiring: William has been a terrific mentor to Rishi in how to lead the Tories and win elections,” said a party official who is too young to remember 2001.

Additional reporting by Roberto Hutton and Bobby Hutton

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