Year-in-Review: The great British ‘permacrisis’

There was an ominous momentum to British politics in 2022. 

This truly epic period in British politics saw two Conservative leadership contests, two monarchs, three prime ministers, four chancellors, six “fiscal events” and it all culminated in considerable market turmoil.

Factor in the ongoing complexities over Brexit, the debilitating legacy of Covid lockdowns, a surge of “small boats” crossing the Channel, Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and a global cost-of-everything crisis, and you get a year of sobering, crippling uncertainty. The unrelenting pace of British politics created a sense of permanent crisis — or permacrisis, as Collins Dictionary’s word of the year would have it.

In some senses, a 2022 “year-in-review” is an impossible task. The cascading pace of politics over the past 365 days makes any attempt to weave a neat narrative through events difficult indeed. There is also the unavoidable fact that Britain’s incessant turmoil developed alongside an increasingly intricate international picture. How do you make sense of Britain’s domestic doom loop against the background of deep geopolitical fragility, redefined by the Ukraine war? 

In the end, it is the causally separate but savagely simultaneous nature of our political problems that gives meaning to Britain’s permacrisis. The feeling of lurching from one distinct crisis to the next is all too familiar — as is the sense of dread developed in wondering how events will unravel next.

This brings us to the final problem of a 2022 “year-in-review”. For Britain’s permacrisis is far from over. Unprecedented industrial action grips Britain in a way the country has not experienced since the 70s, and with both the unions and the government digging in, there is little sign of this crisis subsiding.

In short, 2022 was a year where the only certainty was chaos. We begin with Boris.

Boris Johnson’s three “P”s

The tone of 2022’s political drama was arguably set in January by the drip-drip of stories around rule-breaking gatherings in Downing Street. After a string of denials through the latter parts of 2021, Boris Johnson offered his “heartfelt apologies” to the House of Commons chamber on the 12th. It came after reports emerged that the prime minister had attended a drinks reception on 20 May 2020.

An “initial report” from everyone’s favourite secret Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray followed, with the full publication delayed until after the Metropolitan Police concluded its own investigation. The force eventually issued 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 people, including the prime minister, his wife Carrie and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

Sue Gray’s final report in May summed up and broke down more than 300 photos of alleged wrongdoings. Alongside the details of mass illegality within Number 10, Gray issued a damning judgement:

The events that I investigated were attended by leaders in government. Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen. It is also the case that some of the more junior civil servants believed that their involvement in some of these events was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders. The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.

With the political winds blowing against the prime minister, “Operation save big dog” was launched, a shadowy whipping operation by Number 10 designed to win over Conservative MPs as the revelations piled up. Not only was the operation unsuccessful, but the appointment of Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip would create further problems down the line.

On June 6, enough letters had been submitted to 1922 backbench committee chair Sir Graham Brady to trigger a confidence election. It saw 41% of Conservative MPs vote against Johnson — a worse result than Thatcher in 1990, Major in 1995 and May in 2018. The prime minister insisted that this was a “positive, conclusive, decisive result”, but he was fatally wounded. How could he pitch to the electorate that he was the best PM for the job when 41% of his own MPs disagreed?

On June 23, the Conservative party lost two by-elections. Wakefield, a “red wall” constituency, went back to Labour with an 8.6% swing; and Tiverton and Honiton, a true blue rural seat, went to the Liberal Democrats with a 38% swing. Both sides of Johnson’s 2019 winning coalition were being ripped apart. Oliver Dowden resigned as party chairman and the Conservative party’s grumbling grew louder still. 

The final straw was the Chris Pincher affair. Pincher, appointed deputy chief whip in February, resigned from his position after allegations emerged that he had harassed a young Conservative researcher at a private members Club. Pincher denies the allegations.

Johnson’s response was familiar. He denied that he had been made aware of alleged wrongdoings prior to Pincher’s appointment as deputy chief whip and sent out ministers, junior and senior, to affirm as much in a media circus. But ministers who had swallowed the government line were quickly undermined by a bombshell letter from the former head of the foreign office, Simon McDonald, which revealed that Johnson had been told of previous allegations before Pincher’s appointment.

After “Patersongate” at the end of 2021, “partygate” through 2022 and now the “Pincher affair”, ministers had finally had enough. Sajid Javid, the then-health secretary, channelled Geoffrey Howe in his resignation and subsequent commons address. In the end, over 60 ministers resigned from the government in a bid to force Johnson out. 

After much self-important dither and delay, the prime minister eventually resigned at the eleventh hour on 7 July. In his final speech as prime minister, delivered on the steps of Downing Street, Johnson said: “When the herd moves, it moves”. In truth, it had been a stampede. 

Conservative leadership contest 1.0

After Johnson’s defenestration came the summer 2022 leadership contest. Conservative MPs from all corners of the party lined up as potential predecessors. The runners and riders including: Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Jeremy Hunt, Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Tom Tugenhat, Nadim Zahawi, Sajid Javid, Grant Shapps  — and who can forget Rehman Chishti?

As Rishi Sunak ploughed ahead with MP endorsements, a battle emerged on the party right over who would be the candidate to challenge him. In the final round of voting, the votes of Badenoch and Braverman fell behind Liz Truss, giving her enough backers to overtake Mordaunt and take on Sunak in a ballot of the membership. 

The two final leadership contenders clashed in a series of unedifying bouts at hustings and on TV debates. The key divide was over taxes and fiscal policy. Truss’ economic proposals were dismissed as “fantasy economics” by Sunak; Dominic Raab, who emerged as Sunak’s chief attack dog, rubbished the plans as an “electoral suicide note”.

But Sunak’s attacks did not stop Truss from winning 57.4% of the Conservative members’ vote, a less-than-expected but still decisive margin of victory.  

The Trussonomics interregnum  

Two days after taking office, Truss stood in the House of Commons to announce her energy support package. She said her tax-cutting “plan for growth” would follow a few days later. But when the prime minister sat down, she was passed a note informing her the Queen was on her deathbed. The monarch died several hours later.

The 10-day mourning period that followed is thought to have focussed minds considerably in Number 10. An inner circle including Truss and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng began to draw up proposals significantly more radical than anything aired in the leadership contest. The cap on bankers’ bonuses was to be scrapped, so too the 45 per cent top tax rate on earnings of over £150,000. A series of reforms dubbed “operation rolling thunder”, covering issues as diverse as financial services, childcare and farming were sounded but ultimately put on hold. Whitehall was working overtime to deliver on Truss’ timetable.

Kwarteng’s fiscal event, coined the “mini budget”, was announced in a statement to the commons on 23 September. It was intended to mark a clear moment of departure for Britain; no longer would any concession be made to fears about public finances or concerns about opinion polls — there would be no more apologetic, compromise Conservatism.

But the plans were met with an almost instantaneous rejection by the financial markets and global currency traders. The pound dropped to a low of $1.05, interest rates spiked, pension funds teetered on the edge and the Bank of England began buying bonds to prop up the British economy.

The world watched in awe as the “invisible hand” of the market strangled Truss’ economic dream at its birth.

A rapid, ragged retreat followed. Truss worked to re-embed the very same “treasury orthodoxy” she had so consummately opposed over the summer. Kwarteng was summoned back from an IMF meeting in Washington to attend his own political execution. Truss’ dream of turning Britain into a small-state, low-tax beacon of free enterprise had not even made it out of the pit lane.

Jeremy Hunt, who had stood in the summer contest on a platform of cuts even more drastic than that delivered in the “mini-budget”, was tasked with ruthlessly piecing fiscal orthodoxy back together as the new chancellor. But it was too late for Truss. After confusion broke out over whether a commons vote on fracking was a vote of confidence in the government, the prime minister’s position became untenable. A fed up Charles Walker provided an appropriate summary:

I really shouldn’t say this but I hope that all those people that put Liz Truss in Number 10, I hope it was worth it. I hope it was worth it for the ministerial red box. I hope it was worth it to sit around the cabinet table, because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary.

On the evening of the 24th of October, the prime minister had a meeting with executioner-in-chief Sir Graham Brady. She announced her resignation the next day.

Conservative leadership contest 2.0

2022’s second Conservative leadership contest took place over the space of four days, a stark contrast to the months-long battles between Truss and Sunak in the summer. 

In retrospect, it is easy to forget just how close both Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson came to entering/re-entering Downing Street. A galvanised Johnson, newly returned from his holiday retreat in the Caribbean, took to gathering parliamentary support. Brady has since confirmed that Johnson had the 100-plus backers needed to trigger a membership ballot. Conversely, Penny Mordaunt is thought to have gathered the support of around 90 MPs. Had either candidate to faced Sunak in a ballot of the membership, polls suggested they would have won. 

However, both Johnson and Mordaunt dropped out before the close of nominations and Sunak was coronated as Conservative leader and hence prime minister on 25 October. 

Sunak was now  locked on a course dictated by the very economic establishment that Truss wanted to knock down. Retaining Hunt as chancellor, the Autumn Statement delivered on November 14th was the most austere economic plan since George Osborne’s “emergency budget” in 2011. It was a dramatic about-turn from the heady days of “Trussonomics”, with the new revenue-raising measures increasing the tax burden to the highest level since WWII.

The permacrisis continues…

Despite this surreal route to the top, Sunak arrived at Number 10 with the promise that he would draw a line under Conservative anarchy and restore orderly government to Britain. But Sunak’s premiership, while still in its early stages, has not been easy going. 

Gavin Williamson was forced to resign as a cabinet minister over a bullying scandal two weeks after his appointment. This followed a heated debate over Suella Braverman’s reappointment, who had resigned as home secretary after a breach of ministerial rules under Truss.

Then there were two significant U-turns over central housebuilding targets and onshore wind — further proof that Sunak was not yet strong enough to stand up to backbench criticism. And now we have a new wave of strikes, continued from the Summer, but greater in number and more targeted. 

All this is evidence that the manic mayhem at the apex of politics, seen through the violent swings in the fortunes of Conservative politicians, is not over yet. As Britain’s general strike in all but name spills into the new year, the great British permacrisis rumbles on.