Laura Kuenssberg: State of Chaos is gruesome and gripping, and it does feel bad to be so gripped by it. The former political editor of the BBC, who stepped down from the position in 2022, uses her insider knowledge and chunky address book to examine why we have had five prime ministers in 10 years, and why this is “a norm-busting, convention-defying” period of political history. The programme starts in 2016, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, and this episode, the first of three, ends with the arrival and early impact of Boris Johnson – and Dominic Cummings – at Number 10.
It certainly is depressing. It offers a portrait of baffled officials, from ministers to civil servants, splashing around in the muck, out of their depth, sometimes pointing a finger at somebody else. William Hague opines that we have seen “the end of normal”, which only adds to the bleakness. Jacob Rees-Mogg appears with an anecdote about the morning after the referendum, as his son tells him that they’ve won. Philip Hammond says one of his kids woke him up to say, “It looks like it’s gone the wrong way.” There is a great display of the BBC’s grand balancing act throughout, though notably, the only Labour figure interviewed in the opening episode is Hilary Benn. I suppose this is the story of the mess the Tories have made, and it’s more damning if they are the ones to tell it.
Civil servants who have never spoken on camera before tell Kuenssberg that there was no plan for a leave victory. Nigel Farage says he does not think Johnson and Gove were “genuine Brexiteers”. The whole documentary is a treasure-trove of newsworthy snipes and seemingly minor revelations that coalesce into a picture of a government at loggerheads and in permanent crisis. The brief tenure of Theresa May, “prime minister by default”, sounds strained, insular and hopeless from the start. Her now infamous special advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, were widely blamed for events leading up to May’s disastrous decision to call an election in 2017, and her deeply unpopular manifesto, which led to the Conservatives losing their majority. Both speak to Kuenssberg here, as do civil servants, who describe a “culture clash” between the two camps. There is a startling admission about impartiality. There is some scorched earth left behind after everyone’s contributions.
Former ministers describe an environment in which nothing could get done. Matt Hancock talks of long meetings that never came to a conclusion. Hammond says that one of May’s favourite phrases was “let me think about it”. Her attempts to unite the leave and remain camps by having representatives of both in Cabinet seems spectacularly naive, in hindsight. The senior civil servant Philip Rycroft points out that referendums “drive a deep wedge into the political psyche of the country and it’s very, very hard to recover from that”.
There is sober analysis like that, and there is high-end gossip. Some of what emerges is truly extraordinary: picture, if you must, the Accidental Partridge-ness of Steve Baker in his home office, in shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt, describing himself “absolutely waging war on the government” and “whipping the media cycle and the newspapers into a frenzy” as he takes credit for sinking the Chequers deal and May’s premiership by tweeting and WhatsApp-ing his way through the weekend. He does at least say that he is “rather ashamed” to have thrown around the word “traitor”, which he now delicately calls “the T-word”.
Kuenssberg suggests that this is the moment a “new, radical ugliness began to emerge” in British politics, but various contributors suggest other possibilities. Justine Greening, Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd talk about the death threats that came flooding through, and the atmosphere of fear and hostility. When May finally steps down, the balance-ometer goes into overdrive: senior civil servant Helen MacNamara extols her virtues; Nadine Dorries says she was not a good prime minister; William Hague says it’s impossible to say whether she was good or not, as it was an impossible situation.
The programme is sprawling, yet it feels as though people are missing: the biggest characters in this carousel of chaos do not appear, and their absence is notable. There is also a strange disconnect, because most of the interviewees, particularly the politicians, talk about events as if they were mere spectators who just happened to be in the room at the time, rather than taking any responsibility. Still, this is an exhaustive and thorough insiders’ account of the political turmoil that has dogged the country since 2016. There are two episodes to go, if you can bear it.