20 December 2022

Three Prime Ministers and a funeral – CapX’s Year in Review


As dawn broke on January 1, 2022 the nation could have been forgiven for looking to the year ahead with cautious optimism. The success of the vaccine booster scheme combined with the milder Omicron variant had turned Covid from a terrifying killer into little more than a sniffle for many. With the pandemic fading into the background, supply chains would surely open up again, easing inflation; outrage over alleged breaches of lockdown would fade as restrictions lifted and a government with a comfortable majority could get on with Levelling Up, seizing all those lovely Brexit opportunities and cruising towards another election victory for Boris Johnson. Except it didn’t quite turn out that way…

Here’s CapX’s round-up of a baffling year.


One question dominated the start of the year: What is a party? As details emerged of Downing Street staff drinking, vomiting, filling suitcases with booze and breaking swings during lockdown, including on the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral, Boris Johnson’s apologies and excuses became ever more linguistically tortured. But in a strange stroke of luck, the Met Police announced it was formally investigating the affair, which delayed publication of Sue Gray’s official inquiry and saved the ‘greased piglet’s’ bacon – for a bit.


Reality hit a country that had, hitherto, been largely shielded from the impact of gas price inflation by the energy price cap, when Ofgem revealed that average bills would rise by £700. The Government announced support measures described by Boris Johnson as a ‘mega package’. On February 21 all remaining Covid restrictions were lifted and Britons got their freedom back – just days later Ukrainians began the fight for theirs, when Putin’s tanks ploughed across their border.


The Met Police settled the matter of what legally constitutes a party, when they revealed they were investigating at least 12 that had taken place in Westminster during lockdown. Accurately defining 51% of the population proved more of a challenge for Keir Starmer, who was criticised for struggling to answer basic questions about female anatomy. TV viewers were glued to a show billed as ‘a love letter to the NHS’, but which was more like a horrifying expose of a broken system that demoralises doctors and treats mothers and babies like meat. Life then imitated art when a report found that poor care had led to the deaths of 201 babies.


Covid fines for ministers and officials dominated the headlines, but the Government was soldiering on with a raft of exciting or – depending how cynical your view – distracting, policy announcements. There was the plan to deport migrants to Rwanda, an energy strategy to reduce dependence on Russian gas and a new draft of the Online Safety Bill. 

An MP was seen watching pornography in the House of Commons, and the member for Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish, took to the airwaves to solemnly declare that the culprit should be ‘dealt with seriously’, only for it to emerge that it had in fact been him. He claimed he’d been trying to look at tractors.


The Prince of Wales delivered a hyper-active Queen’s Speech, containing no fewer than 38 Bills – of which just three have received Royal Assent at the time of writing. Other measures, like privatising Channel 4 and introducing a British Bill of Rights seem unlikely to get through this session, if ever. 

The Sue Gray report was finally published along with hotly anticipated pictures of the Downing Street parties. Far from the bacchanals of popular imagination, they showed bleak, low-budget gatherings with limp sandwiches and tepid squash, like terrible parodies of school Sports Day. It was a relief to know that though ministers were partying while the rest of us cowered at home, at least they were having a terrible time.


As the country celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, Sir Graham Brady marked Tory MPs’ version of Valentine’s Day, where instead of writing billets-doux to their sweethearts, they send letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister to the chairman of the 1922 committee. Boris Johnson survived the subsequent vote, meaning he was technically safe from another leadership challenge for a year. The Tories then got well and truly trounced in two by-elections and it was party Chairman Oliver Dowden who ended the month out of a job.


Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher woke up with a stonking hangover and immediately resigned, admitting ‘last night I drank far too much’. He described ‘embarrassing’ himself and others – others alleged sexual assault. Boris Johnson initially denied he’d been aware of existing complaints against the MP when he made him responsible for Party discipline, until it was claimed that the member for Tamworth was referred to in Downing Street as ‘Pincher by name, pincher by nature’. 

This was the final straw for Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who quit the Cabinet and triggered the biggest wave of junior ministerial resignations ever to take place in a single day. In a scrambling reshuffle Nadhim Zahawi accepted the role of Chancellor, only to call on the Prime Minister to stand down 48 hours later. 

Boris Johnson resigned having won a stunning election victory, presided over the pandemic, got married, had two children, become the second most popular man in Ukraine, and nearly died – all in just three years.

The obvious successor was obscure Kent backbencher Rehman Chishti – at least according to Rehman Chishti. Regrettably (for him) his colleagues disagreed, and it was Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak who went forward to the members’ ballot. 

For a few days it was very, very hot.


Over an interminable leadership campaign, a fairly minor policy disagreement escalated in an ideological battle for the soul of the Conservative Party. Liz Truss positioned herself as the champion of growth and deregulation who would cut taxes now, while Rishi Sunak was the balance-the-books pragmatist who would cut taxes later. This dragged on for weeks.


Liz Truss became Prime Minister and promptly announced a £140bn ‘energy price guarantee’ which made Boris Johnson’s ‘mega package’ look slightly disappointing by comparison. Two days later, Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest reigning and perhaps greatest monarch died, plunging the country into two weeks of national mourning. 

As if all that wasn’t unsettling enough, the Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng then delivered an ill-judged and poorly timed ‘mini-budget’ which sent financial markets into a tailspin. 


The mini-budget continued to go down about as well as Chris Pincher’s romantic advances, rendering Tory conference a fairly sombre affair (aside from the *excellent* CapX events, of course). Even Liz Truss’ ‘anti-growth coalition’ speech wasn’t enough to revive her fortunes. Truss then decided to replace Kwarteng with Jeremy Hunt, who promptly reversed almost everything his predecessor had done. But it wasn’t enough to restore confidence in Truss’ leadership, and the media speculated about whether her premiership could outlast a wet lettuce. She resigned on her 45th day in office and became the shortest serving Prime Minister in British history. 

Boris Johnson claimed to be ‘up for it’ (no surprises there) and flew back from a Caribbean holiday to fight the ensuing leadership contest. But in the end it was Rishi Sunak had enough support from MPs to become Tory leader and Britain’s third Prime Minister in four months.


Faced with fractious and exhausted troops, and a high proportion of disgruntled ex-ministers among their number, Sunak’s first task was to appoint a Cabinet that would unite the party. So he brought back the notoriously emollient Gavin Williamson as an enforcer. Williamson was then forced to resign for a third time amid bullying allegations.

Jeremy Hunt delivered an Autumn Statement which included painful tax rises for households and businesses aimed at getting the public finances back in order.

The Supreme Court rejected Nicola Sturgeon’s bid for a second Scottish Independence referendum.

The public voted for ex-Health Secretary and Prime Ministerial contender Matt Hancock to undergo gruesome trials, including eating a dish of camel penis, dubbed ‘willy con carne’ on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, in the world’s least subtle metaphor for the state of British politics.


Britain ended 2022 much as it had spent 2021 – stuck at home. A wave of strikes has ground public services to a halt, and people are being warned not to travel, ‘play rugby’ or get drunk in order to ‘support the NHS’ while its staff are on the picket lines. And with further threats of industrial action, speculation about a new Russian offensive against Kyiv, and toddlers dying from usually harmless respiratory infections, it’s difficult to think of a festive note to end on.

Suffice to say that next year can’t possibly be as bonkers as this one… can it?

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.