Rishi Sunak wants to prove The Thick of It is a documentary
A lament for the absurd political clowning of powerful people in charge of our lives.
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It turns out “The Thick of It” is a documentary.
If you’re not familiar with the show (go watch it, it’s amazing), it’s the UK predecessor of Veep in the United States—and in my view, it’s much funnier. At its heart is the realistic contention that people in power, including the most senior politicians, are often incompetent fools who are making it up as they go along.
In one of the show’s best scenes, a government minister who is slated to announce a new policy is told, at the last minute, not to announce it. As a result, the press gathers for a minister who announces precisely nothing—and then tries to claim that the real announcement is that he’s getting on with doing his job, just like every other day.
But then, when he’s heading back to London after the disastrous press conference, his bosses change their minds. They tell the minister to pretend that he did announce the new policy hours earlier, even though he quite clearly didn’t—and was recorded not doing so. Chaos and hilarity ensues.
I’ve worked at the heart of political campaigns, co-managing a winning campaign for governor in my home state of Minnesota, and I can vouch for the often alarming absurdity of political decision-making. Everyone is, quite often, winging it. Not reassuring, perhaps, but it does have the virtue of being the truth.
This week, British prime minister Rishi Sunak seemed determined to prove that The Thick of It was a documentary, not a political sitcom. If you’re not familiar with what’s been going on in British politics, here’s a brief recap of two bits of important context:
The British government, led by the Conservatives for the past thirteen years, has genuinely established itself as a world leader on climate change mitigation. It’s not enough, sure, but the UK has been doing comparatively well.
Despite being a small island with mostly flat terrain, Britain has just one domestic high speed rail line, HS1, which extends southeast from London. There have long been plans to establish HS2, going from London to two of the UK’s other biggest cities, Birmingham and Manchester. This project has been plagued by cost overruns and incompetence during successive Conservative governments.
Now, Sunak is badly down in the polls after repeated Tory scandals from Boris Johnson and the destructive force of nature that was Liz Truss’s 49 days in power. Trying to rescue himself and his party before next year’s general election, he’s decided that the pathway back to power is by doing unpopular things but branding them as “long-term decisions” that are difficult, but right. The gamble he’s making—a bad bet, by the way—is that voters care more about the guy who will do stuff they don’t want, precisely because it shows that he’s a visionary leader.
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