My life divides, evenly enough, into three political eras. I was born in 1980, a year after Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi on her lips: “Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” The Conservative-run Britain of the eighties was not harmonious. Life beyond the North London square where my family lived often seemed to be in the grip of one confrontation or another. The news was always showing police on horseback. There were strikes, protests, the I.R.A., and George Michael on the radio. My father, who was a lawyer in the City, travelled to Germany to buy a Mercedes and drove it back, elated. Until Thatcher resigned, when I was ten, her steeply back-combed hair and deep, impossible voice played an outsized role in my imagination—a more interesting, more dangerous version of the Queen. I was nearly seventeen when the Tories finally lost power, to Tony Blair and “New Labour,” an updated, market-friendly version of the Party. Before he moved to Downing Street, Blair lived in Islington, the gentrifying borough I was from. Boris Johnson, an amusing right-wing columnist, who was getting his start on television, also lived nearby. Our local Member of Parliament was an out-of-touch leftist named Jeremy Corbyn. New Labour believed in the responsibility of the state to look after its citizens, and in capitalism to make them prosper. Blair was convincing, even when he was wrong. He won three general elections in ten years and walked out of the House of Commons to a standing ovation, undefeated in his eyes. I was turning thirty when Labour eventually ran out of road, undone by the Iraq War, the global financial crisis, and the grim temper of Gordon Brown, Blair’s successor. He was caught in a hot-mike moment describing an ordinary voter, who was complaining about taxes and immigration, as a bigot. Since then, it’s been the Conservatives again. In 2010, the Party returned to government in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Since 2015, it has held power alone. Last May, the Tories surpassed the thirteen years and nine days that New Labour had held office. But the third political era of my lifetime has been nothing like the previous two. There has been no dominant figure or overt political project, no Thatcherism, no Blairism. Instead, there has been a quickening, lowering churn: five Prime Ministers, three general elections, two financial emergencies, a once-in-a-century constitutional crisis, and an atmosphere of tired, almost constant drama. The period is bisected by the United Kingdom’s decision, in 2016, to leave the European Union, a Conservative fantasy, or nightmare, depending on whom you talk to. Brexit catalyzed some of the worst tendencies in British politics—its superficiality, nostalgia, and love of game play—and exhausted the country’s political class, leaving it ill prepared for the pandemic and the twin economic shocks of the war in Ukraine and the forty-nine-day experimental premiership of Liz Truss. Covering British politics during this period has been like trying to remember, and explain, a very convoluted and ultimately boring dream. If you really concentrate, you can recall a lot of the details, but that doesn’t lead you closer to any meaning. Last year, I started interviewing Conservatives to try to make sense of these years. “One always starts with disclaimers now—I didn’t start this car crash,” Julian Glover, a former speechwriter for David Cameron, the longest-serving Prime Minister of the period, told me. I spoke to M.P.s and former Cabinet ministers; political advisers who helped to make major decisions; and civil servants, local-government officials, and frontline workers hundreds of miles from London who had to deal with the consequences. Some people insisted that the past decade and a half of British politics resists satisfying explanation. The only way to think about it is as a psychodrama enacted, for the most part, by a small group of middle-aged men who went to élite private schools, studied at the University of Oxford, and have been climbing and chucking one another off the ladder of British public life—the cursus honorum , as Johnson once called it—ever since. The Conservative Party, whose history goes back some three hundred and fifty years, aids this theory by not having anything as vulgar as an ideology. “They’re not on a mission to do X, Y, or Z,” as a former senior adviser explained. “You win and you govern because we are better at it, right?” Another way to think about these years is to consider them in psychological, or theoretical, terms. In “Heroic Failure,” the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole explains Brexit by describing Britain’s fall from imperial nation to “occupied colony” of the E.U., and the rise of a powerful English nationalism as a result. Last year, Abby Innes, a scholar at the London School of Economics, published “Late Soviet Britain: Why Materialist Utopias Fail,” which argues that, since Thatcher, Britain’s political mainstream has become as devoted to particular ideas about running the state—a default commitment to competition, markets, and forms of privatization—as Brezhnev’s U.S.S.R. ever was. “The resulting regime,” Innes writes, “has proved anything but stable.” These observations are surely right, but I worry that they obscure two basic truths about Britain’s experience since 2010. The first is that the country has suffered grievously. These have been years of loss and waste. The U.K. has yet to recover from the financial crisis that began in 2008. According to one estimate, the average worker is now fourteen thousand pounds worse off per year than if earnings had continued to rise at pre-crisis rates—it is the worst period for wage growth since the Napoleonic Wars. “Nobody who’s alive and working in the British economy today has ever seen anything like this,” Torsten Bell, the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, which published the analysis, told the BBC last year. “This is what failure looks like.” High levels of employment and immigration, coupled with the enduring dynamism of London, mask a national reality of low pay, precarious jobs, and chronic underinvestment. The trains are late. The traffic is bad. The housing market is a joke. “The core problem is easy to observe, but it’s tough to live with,” Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, told me. “It’s just not that productive an economy anymore.” With stagnant wages, people’s living standards have fallen. In 2008, Brown’s Labour government commissioned Michael Marmot, a renowned epidemiologist, to come up with ways to reduce England’s health inequalities. Marmot made suggestions in six policy areas, including better access to child care, walking and cycling programs, social-security reforms, and measures to improve people’s sense of agency at work. In 2010, he presented his ideas to the incoming Conservative-led coalition, which accepted his findings. “I thought, Wow, this is great. . . . I was pretty bullish about the whole thing,” Marmot told me. “The problem was they then didn’t do it.” Ten years later, Marmot led a follow-up study, in which he documented stalling life expectancy, particularly among women in England’s poorest communities—and widening inequalities. “For men and women everywhere the time spent in poor health is increasing,” he wrote. “This is shocking.” According to Marmot, the U.K.’s health performance since 2010, which includes rising infant mortality, slowing growth in children, and the return of rickets, makes it an outlier among comparable European nations. “The damage to the nation’s health need not have happened,” Marmot concluded in 2020. He told me, “It was a political choice.” And that is the second, all too obvious, fact of British life throughout this period: a single party has been responsible. You cannot say that the country has been ruled against its will. Since 2010, the Tories have emerged as the winner of the popular vote and as the largest party in Parliament in three elections. In December, 2019, Boris Johnson won an eighty-seat majority in the House of Commons, the Conservatives’ biggest electoral success since the heyday of Thatcherism. How is this possible? The opposition has been underwhelming. For years, Labour drifted and squabbled under two unconvincing leaders: Ed Miliband and Corbyn, my old Islington M.P. It is telling that, since Labour elected Keir Starmer, an unimaginative former prosecutor with a rigidly centrist program, the Party is competitive again. But the Conservatives have not survived by default. Their party has excelled at diminishing Britain’s political landscape and shrinking the sense of what is possible. It has governed and skirmished, never settling for long. “It’s all about constantly drawing dividing lines,” a former Party strategist told me. “That’s all you need. It’s not about big ideological debates or policies or anything.” In many ways, the two momentous decisions of this period—what came to be known as austerity and Brexit—are now widely accepted as events that happened, rather than as choices that were made. Starmer’s Labour Party does not seek to reverse them. If you live in an old country, it can be easy to succumb to a narrative of decline. The state withers. The charlatans take over. You give up on progress, to some extent, and simply pray that this particular chapter of British nonsense will come to an end. It will. Rishi Sunak, the fifth, and presumably final, Conservative Prime Minister of the era, faces an election later this year, which he will almost certainly lose. But Britain cannot move on from the Tories without properly facing up to the harm that they have caused. The Conservative Party manifesto for the 2010 election was a plain blue hardback book titled “Invitation to Join the British Government.” After the Party’s longest spell out of power in more than a century, its pitch to voters was “the Big Society,” a call for civic volunteering and private enterprise after the statism of Labour. “There was a feeling that it must be possible to be positive about a better future in a way that wasn’t socialist,” Glover, the former speechwriter, said. “And that wasn’t an ignoble thing to try.” Beginning in 2005, Cameron and George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, had modernized the Tories. The duo represented a new generation of Conservatives: deft and urbane, easy in their privilege. Osborne was the heir to a baronetcy; Cameron’s family descended from a mistress of William IV. Cameron embraced centrist causes, including the environment and prison reform. There was talk of a “post-bureaucratic age.” But the main aim was simpler. “Above all, it was trying to win,” Osborne told me recently. In the spring of 2009, Cameron told a gathering of Party members in Gloucestershire, “The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity.” The speech was part of a successful campaign to associate Labour’s public spending with the global financial crash, to which Britain had been badly exposed. “The word ‘austerity’ was deliberately introduced into the lexicon by myself and David Cameron,” Osborne said. “Austerity” evoked the country’s sober rebuilding after the Second World War. “The word didn’t have the connotations then that it does now,” Osborne recalled. “It was, you know, a bit like prudence.” In 2010, the Conservatives fell short of a majority in the House of Commons and formed, with the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s first coalition government in almost seventy years. The state was running a deficit of a hundred and fifty-seven billion pounds—about one and a half times the budget of the National Health Service. Any incoming administration would have had to find ways to balance the books, but, under Cameron and Osborne’s leadership, austerity was a moral as well as an economic mission. “We allowed it to become the defining thing,” the former senior adviser reflected. “Austerity” is now a contested term. Plenty of Conservatives question whether it really happened. So it is worth being clear: between 2010 and 2019, British public spending fell from about forty-one per cent of G.D.P. to thirty-five per cent. The Office of Budget Responsibility, the equivalent of the American Congressional Budget Office, describes what came to be known as Plan A as “one of the biggest deficit reduction programmes seen in any advanced economy since World War II.” Governments across Europe pursued fiscal consolidation, but the British version was distinct for its emphasis on shrinking the state rather than raising taxes. Like the choice of the word itself, austerity was politically calculated. Huge areas of public spending—on the N.H.S. and education—were nominally maintained. Pensions and international aid became more generous, to show that British compassion was not dead. But protecting some parts of the state meant sacrificing the rest: the courts, the prisons, police budgets, wildlife departments, rural buses, care for the elderly, youth programs, road maintenance, public health, the diplomatic corps. Plan A spooked economists because of the risk to economic growth. But, in 2013, the British economy grew by 1.8 per cent. The government claimed victory. Around that time, Osborne declared that the nation could win “the global race” and become the richest major economy in the world by 2030. “We were in complete command of the political landscape,” he recalled. “The U.K. is the country that is seen to have got its act together after the crash. London has become the kind of global capital. So it has worked—there’s a bit of a dénouement coming—but it had worked.” At the general election in 2015, the Conservatives won a majority in the House of Commons, with proposals to make a further thirty-seven billion pounds’ worth of cuts. “It was devastatingly politically effective,” Osborne told me, of austerity. It’s just that the effects were so horrendous. Between 2010 and 2018, funding for police forces in England fell by up to a quarter. Officers stopped investigating burglaries. Only four per cent now end in prosecution. In 2021, the median time between a rape offense and the completion of a trial reached more than two and a half years. Last fall, hundreds of school buildings had to be closed for emergency repairs, because the country’s school-construction budget had been cut by forty-six per cent between 2009 and 2022. In October, I talked with Tony Durcan, a retired local-government employee who was responsible for libraries and other cultural programs in the city of Newcastle during the twenty-tens. Durcan told me that he’d had “a good war,” all things considered. There were moments, he said, when the sheer extremity of the crisis was exciting. Between 2010 and 2020, central-government funding for local authorities fell by forty per cent. At one point, it looked as if sixteen of Newcastle’s eighteen libraries would close. The city’s parks budget was cut by ninety-one per cent. The situation forced some creative reforms: Newcastle City Library now hosts the Citizens Advice bureau, where residents can apply for benefits and seek other forms of financial guidance. (The library is featured in “I, Daniel Blake,” Ken Loach’s anti-austerity film of 2016.) But other parts of the city government fell apart. “Youth services and a lot of community-support services, they just disappeared completely,” Durcan said. Child poverty rose sharply. (About forty per cent of children in Newcastle currently live below the poverty line.) But after a while Durcan and his colleagues stopped talking about the cuts, even though their budgets continued to fall. “There was a view—was it helpful? Were you risking losing confidence in the city?” Over time, Durcan came to question the official reasoning for the savings. “You can make a mistake, even when you’re acting for the best,” he explained. “I don’t think that’s what happened in austerity.” Newcastle was a Labour stronghold, as was the rest of the northeast. Until 2019, the Tories held only three out of twenty-nine parliamentary seats in the region. A similar pattern was repeated across England. Poorer communities, particularly in urban areas, which tended to vote Labour, suffered disproportionately. In Liverpool, where the Conservatives have not won a Parliamentary seat for forty years, spending, per head, fell more than in any other city in the country. Public-health spending in Blackpool, one of the poorest local authorities in England, was cut almost five times more, per person, than in the affluent county of Surrey, just south of London, whose eleven M.P.s are all Tories. Durcan and his colleagues noted the discrepancies between Labour- and Conservative-supporting regions. “And so there was cynicism,” he said, “and also great disappointment, a sense of injustice.” Osborne denies that austerity was ever targeted in this way. “It’s not like we ministers just sit there and go, We’re not going to cut Kensington Council. We’re going to cut Liverpool Council. That is a lampoonish way of thinking about British politics,” he said. But some of his colleagues were more willing to acknowledge that electoral thinking was at play. One former Cabinet minister conceded that there were “big strategic moves” to favor older voters, who were more likely to vote Conservative, in the form of pension increases and interventions to raise property prices. David Gauke, a Treasury minister from 2010 to 2017, agreed that the parts of the country that had benefitted most under Labour had seen their budgets cut under the Conservatives. “There was a rebalancing that went on,” he said. “Did it go too far? Maybe it did.” What was less forgivable, in the end, was the cuts’ unthinking nature, their lack of reason. In the fall of 2013, a staffer named Giles Wilkes, who worked for a senior Liberal Democrat minister in the coalition, became alarmed by projections that showed ever-reducing government budgets. “I don’t wish to paint the picture of the British state as too chaotic and heedless and amateur. But I was wandering around in 2013 and 2014, saying to people, Does anyone know what this means for the Home Office or the court system, for local authorities and the social-care budget?” Wilkes said. “Nobody was curious .” Wilkes is now a fellow at the Institute for Government, a nonpartisan think tank. “It was very obvious in real time,” he told me. “There wasn’t a central function going, Hold on a mo. Have we made sure that we can provide a decent prison estate, a decent sort of police system?” And so stupid things happened. Since 2010, forty-three per cent of the courts in England and Wales have closed. No one thinks that this was a good idea. For years, the Conservatives cut prison funding and staffing while encouraging longer jail times. “You kind of had a mismatch,” Gauke, who later served as the Justice Secretary, admitted. The number of adults sentenced to more than ten years in prison more than doubled—until the system caved in, overrun by violence, self-harm, drug use, and staff shortages. In 2023, the government activated what it called Operation Safeguard, in which hundreds of jail cells in police stations were requisitioned to hold convicted offenders, because the prisons were full. In September, a terrorism suspect escaped from Wandsworth Prison, in South London, by clinging to the underside of a food-delivery truck. Eighty of the prison’s two hundred and five officers had not shown up for work that day. The long-term effects of austerity are still playing out. A 2019 paper by Thiemo Fetzer, an economist at the University of Warwick, asked, “Did Austerity Cause Brexit?” Fetzer found that, beginning in 2010, the parts of the country most affected by welfare cuts were more likely to support Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party, which campaigned against immigration and the E.U. The withdrawal of the social safety net in communities already negatively hit by globalization exacerbated the sense of a nation going awry. Public-health experts, including Marmot, argue that a decade of frozen health-care spending undermined the country’s response to the pandemic. More broadly, austerity has contributed to an atmosphere of fatalism, an aversion to thinking about the future. “It is a mood,” Johnna Montgomerie, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies debt and inequality, has written. “A depression, a chronic case of financial melancholia.” Since leaving politics, in 2017, Osborne has enjoyed a lucrative career, serving simultaneously as an adviser at BlackRock, the asset-management firm, and as the editor of the Evening Standard newspaper; more recently, he has been a partner at an investment bank and a podcaster. He insists that the cuts, ultimately, enabled the U.K.’s public finances to withstand the pandemic and the energy crisis that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “There’s no counterfactual,” he told me. Osborne likes to accuse his critics of living in a parallel reality, in which the financial crisis and Britain’s deficit never existed: “It’s, like, Apart from the assassination, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?” But that does not mean the Tories made good choices. British social-security payments are at their lowest levels, relative to wages, in half a century. Under a steady downward ratchet, started by Osborne and continued by his successors, household payments have been capped and income thresholds effectively lowered. In 2017, a “two child” limit was placed on benefits for poor families. In November, 2018, Philip Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, toured the U.K. When we spoke, he recalled a strong sense of denial, or ignorance, among British politicians about the consequences of their decisions. “There was a disconnect between the world and what senior ministers wanted to believe,” he said. The fall in Britain’s living standards isn’t easy for anyone to talk about, least of all Conservatives. The Resolution Foundation, which studies the lives of people with low and middle incomes, is chaired by David Willetts, a former minister in Cameron’s government. Willetts is a tall, genial man, who worked for Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in the eighties. His nickname in the Party was Two Brains. “What I say to Tories now is, Look, we are behind for various reasons,” Willetts said, carefully. “You can argue about it. But our household incomes are clearly lower than France or Germany or the Netherlands.” Part of the problem, Willetts explained, was that Britain’s richest twenty per cent had largely been spared the effects of the past fourteen years—and that made it genuinely difficult for them to comprehend the damage. “We are all O.K.,” he said. “The burden of adjustment has almost entirely been borne by the less affluent half of the British population.” In late November, I took a train to Worcester, a cathedral city south of Birmingham, on the River Severn. It was a raw, washed-out morning. Floodwater shone in the meadows. The city is famous as the home of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce—a dark, sweet yet sour, almost indescribably English condiment, first sold by a pair of chemists in 1837—which has been doused on two centuries’ worth of shepherd’s pie and other stodgy lunches. Worcester used to be a den of political corruption: in 1906, men willing to sell their votes to the Tories could collect payment in the rest rooms of the Duke of York, a pub in the middle of town. More recently, it has been a bellwether. In the nineties, Conservative strategists described “Worcester Woman,” a median female voter—politically aware, married, with two children. (Since 1979, the city’s M.P.s have belonged to the party in power.) I was on my way to Citizens Advice Worcester—part of a charitable network that offers free counselling on debt relief and legal matters—behind a restored Victorian hotel. Shakira was playing on the radio in the reception and a sign read “If You Are Frightened of Your Partner, Call Us.” Geraint Thomas, a Welsh lawyer who runs the center, was in his office, worrying about a heating bill. A few years ago, it was some four thousand pounds a year, but after recent price hikes it was now about fourteen thousand. In 2017, the charity had started running services in Herefordshire as well. Now funding was tight, and various Covid emergency funds were coming to an end. “Next year, we have got a bit of a hole,” Thomas said. The clock on his wall had stopped. Since 2019, the number of people seeking help at the center had risen by thirty per cent. Two years of high inflation and rising interest rates meant that the caseworkers were now seeing homeowners and people working two jobs, along with the unemployed and families on benefits. “It’s like a black hole, dragging more and more people in,” Colin Stuart, who manages volunteers, said. Anne Limbert, who oversees the advice team, explained that, until a few years ago, it was usually possible to make a recovery plan for clients. “It used to be that we could help people, you know, and make a difference,” she said. “Now it’s just kind of depressing.” Increasingly, Limbert was sending clients to food banks. The caseworkers said that they had mostly tuned out politics. Gwen Fraser, a volunteer manager in Herefordshire, which has some of England’s most deprived rural communities, had met a visiting M.P. a few months earlier. “I thought, You’re not in the real world, mate,” she said. Not long ago, a seventy-seven-year-old man, behind on his mortgage, had told Fraser that he was suicidal. The proportion of people coming to the center with a long-term health condition had risen by twenty per cent since 2019. (N.H.S. prescriptions for antidepressants in England almost doubled between 2011 and 2023.) Fraser had recently settled on a phrase that she found useful in her paperwork: “Overwhelming distress.” Worcester Woman voted for Brexit. In 2016, the city chose to leave the European Union by a margin of fifty-four per cent to forty-six per cent. The perception of the Brexit vote as a cry of anguish from deindustrialized northern towns or from faded seaside resorts isn’t wrong—it just leaves out the rest of England. Two weeks after the referendum, Danny Dorling, a geography professor at the University of Oxford, published an article in the British Medical Journal showing that Leave voters weren’t defined neatly either by geography or by income. Fifty-nine per cent identified as middle class, and most lived in the South. “People wouldn’t believe me for years,” Dorling told me. “This was Hampshire voted to leave.” Dorling’s politics are on the left. He opposed Brexit and often describes Britain as a failing state. During the summer of 2018, Dorling gave dozens of public talks across the country reflecting on the referendum. He noticed that places that had voted Remain invariably had better rail connections than those that voted Leave. A lot of Brexit supporters were older and economically secure but had a keen sense of the country going downhill. “Something was falling apart,” Dorling said. “They had got a house in their twenties. They’d had full employment. Their children were in their forties and they might be renting. . . . It was an almost entirely unselfish vote by the old for their grandchildren—let’s try it, or let’s at least show we’re angry.” How you interpret the Brexit vote informs, to a great extent, how you make sense of the past fourteen years of British politics. It is not just a watershed—a before and after. It is also a prism that clarifies or scrambles the picture entirely. One perspective sees the whole saga as a woeful mistake. In this view, Cameron decided to settle, once and for all, an internal Tory argument about Britain’s place in an integrating E.U., a question that had haunted the Party since the last days of Thatcher. In the process, he turned what was an abstruse obsession on the right wing of British politics into a much simpler, terrifyingly binary choice for the population on how they felt their life was going. In the accident theory of Brexit, leaving the E.U. has turned out to be a puncture rather than a catastrophe: a falloff in trade; a return of forgotten bureaucracy with our near neighbors; an exodus of financial jobs from London; a misalignment in the world. “There is a sort of problem for the British state, including Labour as well as all these Tory governments since 2016, which is that they are having to live a lie,” as Osborne, who voted Remain, said. “It’s a bit like tractor-production figures in the Soviet Union. You have to sort of pretend that this thing is working, and everyone in the system knows it isn’t.” The other view sees Brexit as an unfinished revolution. Regardless of its origins, the vote in 2016 was a repudiation of how Britain had been governed for a generation or more. In the B . M . J . article, Dorling observed that younger voters—who chose overwhelmingly to remain in the E.U.—were angry with their elders. “They will feel newly betrayed . . . but their real betrayal has been a long time in the making,” he wrote. For a highly centralized country that is smaller than Wyoming, the U.K. is lopsided beyond belief. It contains regional inequalities greater than those between the east and the west of Germany, or the north and the south of Italy—inequalities that have been allowed by successive governments to grow to shameful extremes. On average, people in Nottingham earn about a quarter of what people make in Kensington and Chelsea, in West London, which is some two hours away by train. During the Brexit campaign, the E.U. came to represent not just a supranational monolith across the English Channel but profound distances within the U.K. itself. And the politicians who defended the E.U. looked and sounded, for the most part, as if they spent more time in Tuscany each summer than they had spent on Teesside in their lives. “The kind of globalism, the internationalism, the liberal élite view, was seized on by people who thought that they’d been spoken down to for decades,” John Hayes, a Tory M.P. and a Brexiteer, told me. “And the more they wheeled out the establishment figures, the more it was, Yeah, that’s them. Those are the ones who don’t get it. They don’t understand us.” Almost eight years after the vote, what stays with me is how unimagined Brexit was. Overnight, and against the will of its leaders, the country abandoned its economic model—as the Anglo-Saxon gateway to the world’s largest trading bloc—and replaced it with nothing at all. “I can’t think of another occasion when a party has so radically changed direction while in office,” Willetts said. Thatcher was an architect of the E.U.’s single market, which in time became a heresy. You can marvel at the recklessness of Brexiteers such as Farage, or of Johnson, who spearheaded the Vote Leave campaign. (“He is not a Brexiteer,” Osborne said. “I really would go to my grave saying, deep down, Boris Johnson did not want to leave the E.U.”) But the real dereliction ran deeper. Sensible Britain failed. The Civil Service did not plan for Brexit. Ivan Rogers was the U.K.’s permanent representative to the E.U. from 2013 to 2017. He started warning about the likelihood of Brexit about five years before the vote. “It was difficult to get the attention of the system,” he said. Beyond a briefing paper, demanded by the House of Lords, there was only some “confidential thinking,” in the words of Jeremy Heywood, the former head of the Civil Service. (Heywood died in 2018.) “The mandarins have a lot to answer for on this,” Rogers said. “We were very badly prepared in 2016.” “I didn’t think it was very wise,” Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, said, of the official refusal to consider the referendum going wrong. “We did a ton of planning.” After the vote, the Bank stabilized the markets while British politics imploded. Cameron resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, a former Home Secretary with limited experience of the economy or of international affairs. In the second half of 2016, May worked with a small group of advisers to formulate a Brexit strategy that ultimately satisfied nobody. “It was incredibly poor statecraft,” a former Cabinet colleague said. “Absolute shit. Abominable.” The abiding image of the Brexit talks was a photo of Michel Barnier, the E.U.’s chief negotiator, with his colleagues and their neat piles of paper on one side of a table, while their British counterparts, led by David Davis, a bluff former special-forces reservist, sat on the other side with a single notebook among them. One Friday lunchtime, a couple of months ago, I met Dominic Cummings at a pub not far from his house in London. A light snow was in the air. Cummings, who is fifty-two, worked on education policy in the coalition government before becoming the campaign director of Vote Leave. (He coined its notorious slogan, “Take Back Control.”) Cummings is a Savonarola figure in British politics, an ascetic and a technocrat, who wants to save the state by burning it down. He refers to Elon Musk by his first name and writes Substack essays with titles such as “On Complexity, ‘fog and moonlight,’ prediction, and politics VII: why social science is so bad at prediction & what is to be done.” Cummings reveres the Apollo space program and takes a dim view of almost all Britain’s elected officials. “Where they are not malicious they are moronic,” he told me once. He talks rapidly, with a slight Northern rasp. (He is from Durham, near Newcastle.) Next to our table in the pub, a woodstove emitted a sudden, enveloping cloud of smoke, which dissipated while we talked. Cummings appeared to be wearing two hats, against the cold. He apologized if it seemed as if he were staring at me. He had recently undergone retinal surgery. Cummings, unsurprisingly, saw Brexit in revolutionary terms—as a chance to break with the country’s ruling orthodoxy. “The Vote Leave campaign was not of the Tory Party,” he said. “It was not a conservative—big ‘C’ or little ‘c’—effort. But none of them wanted to confront the reasons why we did it in the first place. . . . For us, this was an attempt to wrench us off the Cameron, establishment, Blairite line.” Cummings believes that Britain must rediscover its ability to build things—roads, railways, houses, research institutes, products that people want to buy—in order to prosper again. He argues that it is America’s ecosystem of universities, entrepreneurs, and government procurement departments that have helped maintain its economic and technological edge, not just lower taxes or a freer form of capitalism. “When you start talking about this to Tories, they go, Oh, Dominic, you sound like a terrible central planner,” Cummings said. “And you go, That’s America. This is not weird left-wing shit.” No one would accuse Cummings of having a popular platform. His jam is A.I. and Nietzsche. But, after the Brexit vote, he kept waiting for May’s government to act on what was, to him, its obvious implications: to restrict immigration, reform the state, and explore dramatic economic policies, in order to diverge from the E.U. and to boost the country’s productivity. “I kept thinking, month after month, God, like, it’s weird the way they are just thrashing around and not facing it,” Cummings said. In his view, the election of Trump, that November, provided a perfect excuse for Remainers not to take the Brexit vote seriously. “They just lumped it all in with, Oh, it’s a global tide of populism. It’s mad, irrational, evil. It’s partly funded by Putin,” he said. “They didn’t have to reëvaluate and go, Maybe the establishment in general has been, like, fucking up for twenty-plus years. ” In July, 2019, May resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced by Johnson, who hired Cummings as a senior adviser. Cummings thought that Johnson would probably screw it up. At the same time, he saw an opportunity to advance what he considered the true Vote Leave agenda. “In some sense,” he said, “the risk was worth taking.” That fall was the most kinetic, breathtaking period of Britain’s fourteen years of Tory rule. With Cummings at his side, along with Lee Cain, another former Vote Leave official, who became his director of communications, Johnson broke the deadlock that had existed since the referendum. He asked the Queen to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament. He expelled twenty-one Conservative M.P.s—including eight former Cabinet ministers and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill—for attempting to stop the country from leaving the E.U. with no deal at all. On a Tuesday in late September, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s suspension of Parliament had been unlawful. “The effect upon the fundamentals of our democracy was extreme,” the Justices found. I stood outside the court in the rain, and it felt as though the thousand-year-old timbers of the state were moving beneath our feet. Someone in the crowd was wearing a prison jumpsuit and an enlarged Johnson head. A woman was dressed as a suffragist. Anna Soubry, a former Tory M.P. who quit the party to fight for a second referendum, shook her head in wonder. “Astonishing,” she said. But Johnson prevailed. Before the year was out, he had cobbled together a new, hard-line Brexit deal and thumped Corbyn at a general election on another three-word Cummings-approved slogan: “Get Brexit Done.” Johnson was, briefly, unassailable. In the election that December, the Conservatives won seats in places such as Bishop Auckland, in Cummings’s home county of Durham, which they had not held for more than a hundred years. The Party gathered a new, loose coalition of pro-Brexit voters—many of whom were from formerly Labour-voting English towns—to go with its traditionally older, fiscally conservative base. Johnson’s celebrity (the hair, the mess, the faux Churchillian vibes, the ridiculous Latin) was the glue that held it all together. He sensed the public mood. (With Johnson, that was not the same as doing something about it.) He disavowed austerity—promising more money for the N.H.S., new hospitals, and more police—and described a mighty program to redress the country’s economic imbalances, which he called Levelling Up. Johnson’s premiership collapsed under the pressure of the pandemic and of his own proclivities. According to Cummings, the alignment between the goals of Vote Leave and Johnson’s ambitions as Prime Minister decoupled in January, 2020, just a few weeks after the election. Cummings wanted to overhaul the civil service and Britain’s planning laws. Johnson, for his part, wanted a rest. “He was, like, What the fuck are you talking about? Why would I want to do that?” Cummings recalled. (Johnson did not reply to a request for comment.) “It’s basically cake-ism, right?,” Cummings said, referring to Johnson’s political lodestar: having his cake and eating it, too. “I want to do all the things you want to do, and I want everyone to love me,” Cummings recalled. “I was, like, Yeah, that’s not happening.” Britain’s first cases of the coronavirus were announced on January 31, 2020, the day the country left the European Union. In March, Johnson ordered the first national lockdown, caught COVID , and later spent three nights in the I.C.U. For months, the country staggered from one set of restrictions to the next—a reflection of Johnson’s inconstant attitude toward the virus. In texts, Cummings used a shopping-cart emoji to indicate the Prime Minister veering from one half-formed idea to the next. Levelling Up became a pork-barrel exercise: of seven hundred and twenty-five million pounds earmarked in June, 2021, about eighty per cent was for Conservative constituencies. Johnson’s Downing Street was operatically dysfunctional. A rift opened between Cummings and his team and a faction centered on Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s then fiancée, a former Conservative Party communications director. In November, 2020, Cummings accused the Prime Minister of betraying the Vote Leave program and resigned. “I said, Listen, we had a deal. And if you end up breaking our deal there is going to be hell to pay,” Cummings recalled. Cain left as well. A little more than a year later, the Daily Mirror , a left-wing tabloid, broke the news that Johnson and his staff had organized parties while the rest of the country was under lockdown—beginning with the party for Cain’s departure, the previous November. Johnson resigned six months later. The pandemic bore out truths about the British state. There were bright spots: the vaccines and their rollout by the N.H.S.; the intervention of the Treasury, under Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, whose furlough plan protected millions of jobs. More generally, though, the virus revealed tired public services, a population in poor health, and a government that was less competent than it thought it was. “It’s very convenient for everyone to blame Boris,” Cummings said. “But the truth is, in January, February, of 2020, it was the civil service saying‚ We’re the best-prepared country in the world. We’re brilliant at pandemics. The reality is, everything was crumbling.” In October, 2023, Cummings testified at the U.K.’s Covid inquiry, an investigation of the government’s handling of the pandemic led by a retired judge. His written evidence was a hundred and fifteen pages long and began with an epigraph from “War and Peace”: “Nothing was ready for the war which everybody expected.” The hearings took place in an office building around the corner from Paddington Station. I sat next to a row of bereaved family members, who were holding photographs of their loved ones. Cummings wore a white linen shirt, which came untucked, a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and black boots. He is such a contentious figure—an agent of these disordered times—that people often don’t really listen to what he says. A great deal of the media coverage of Cummings’s testimony focussed on his texting style. In messages during the pandemic, he referred to ministers as “useless fuckpigs,” “morons,” and “cunts.” The inquiry’s lawyer asked Cummings if he thought his language had been too strong. “I would say, if anything, it understated the position,” he replied. In written testimony, Cummings implored the Covid inquiry to address a wider crisis in Britain’s political class. “Our political parties and the civil service are extremely closed institutions with little place for people who can think and build,” he wrote. Cummings believes that the war in Iraq, the financial crisis, the pandemic, and the invasion of Ukraine all, in their ways, exposed serious shortcomings in the British state that have yet to be addressed. Brexit, too. When we met, Cummings observed that the country has still failed to confront the full implications of the vote, either domestically or abroad: “You can just treat it as, like, a weird thing, like a witch trial in a medieval village. Now the witch has been burnt, and now the community is getting back to normal. Or you can think of it as part of big structural changes in Western politics, society, and the economy. And if the establishment thinks that you can treat it like a sort of episode of witchcraft mania, then they’re just going to walk straight into recurring shocks.” I was at Heathrow Airport, refreshing the BBC’s Web site on my phone, when the screen changed to a black-and-white commemorative portrait of the Queen. On February 6, 1952, when Elizabeth’s father, George VI, died, the Prime Minister was Winston Churchill. “We cannot at this moment do more than record a spontaneous expression of our grief,” he told the House of Commons that afternoon. Seventy years later, in September, 2022, Britain was seized again by deference, tenderness, and other, more inchoate, emotions. You could not escape the ritual. Hats, horses, artillery in London’s parks. In her later years, the Queen’s aura of permanence had been enhanced by the recklessness at work in other parts of Britain’s public life. Her survival helped to contain a sense of crisis. The Queen died on Liz Truss’s second full day in office. When the country’s brand-new Prime Minister and her husband, Hugh O’Leary, arrived at Westminster Abbey for the state funeral, Australian television identified them as “maybe minor royals.” Four days later, Truss launched the Growth Plan 2022, a Thatcher-inspired, forty-five-billion-pound package of tax cuts intended to reignite the British economy. The bond markets didn’t like it. The pound fell to a record low against the dollar. The International Monetary Fund asked Truss to “re-evaluate.” Her approval rating dropped by almost thirty points in a week. Ashen, Truss fired her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, then left office herself, on October 25th, serving seventy-one days fewer than Britain’s previous shortest-serving Prime Minister, George Canning, who died suddenly of pneumonia in 1827. It made sense to pretend that Truss and her Growth Plan had been a rogue mission, inflicted on an unsuspecting nation. Truss was depicted as mad, or ideologically unreliable, or both. She had been a Liberal Democrat at Oxford who once opposed the monarchy. She was strangely besotted with mental arithmetic. But the truth is that Truss was neither an outlier nor a secret radical, but a representative spirit of the Conservative Party and its years in power. She was one of the first M.P.s of her intake to be promoted to the Cabinet, brought on by Cameron, before serving both May and Johnson in a hectic and haphazard series of important jobs: running departments for the environment, justice, international trade, and a large part of the Treasury. In all these positions, Truss was the same: spiky, dynamic, considered skillful on TV. In 2012, she and Kwarteng contributed to “Britannia Unchained,” an ode to tax cutting and deregulation that described the British as “among the worst idlers in the world.” I asked one of Truss’s contemporaries, the former Cabinet minister, if anyone took the ideas seriously at the time. It was hard to catch the attention of the Party’s base under the coalition, he complained. “The easiest way was to show a bit of leg,” he said. “It used to be hanging.” Truss campaigned for Remain before becoming a Brexiteer. As Foreign Secretary, she posed on top of a tank—pure Thatcher cosplay—and dominated the government’s Flickr account, with pictures of herself jogging across the Brooklyn Bridge and standing, ruminatively, in Red Square, in Moscow. “It’s silliness,” Rory Stewart told me. Stewart became a Conservative M.P. on the same day as Truss, in 2010, after working for the British government in Iraq, running an N.G.O. in Afghanistan, and teaching at Harvard. He was ejected from the Party during the Johnson purge of 2019. Last year, he published “How Not to Be a Politician,” a compulsive, depressing memoir of his career during this period. “It’s clever, silly people. It’s a lack of seriousness,” he said, of Truss and many of his peers. In 2015, Stewart was sent to work under Truss at Britain’s department for the environment. Truss challenged him to come up with a strategy for England’s national parks in three days. “She said, Come on, Rory, how difficult can this be?” he recalled. Truss started firing off suggestions. “Get young people into nature. Blah blah blah blah.” (The plan was announced on time; Truss declined to speak to me.) “I felt with Liz Truss slight affection but above all profound pity,” Stewart said. “Because she’s approaching these big conversations as though she’s sort of performing as an underprepared undergraduate at a seminar.” On a cloudless summer’s morning, in the dog days of Theresa May’s government, I travelled to Scunthorpe, in North Lincolnshire. In the sixties, Scunthorpe was a growing steel town with four blast furnaces named after English queens. In 2016, the population voted overwhelmingly for Brexit; three years later, the steelworks was at risk of closure, in part because of trade uncertainties caused by the vote. British Steel, which ran the plant, had been sold to private-equity investors for a pound. Four thousand jobs were on the line. In the afternoon, I sat down with Simon Green, the deputy chief executive of the local council. Green was in his early fifties, angular and forthright. He grew up in Grimsby, a fishing town on the coast, and spent his career in local government—in Boston and New York, as well as in Nottingham and Sheffield—before taking the job in North Lincolnshire, in 2017. Green was sick of reporters, like me, coming up to Scunthorpe from London for the day, to gawk at its predicament and wonder why people could have believed that Brexit would improve their situation. “No disrespect, but we do get a level of poverty porn,” he said. “A lot of doom and gloom.” Green assured me that the Brexit-related anxiety around the steelworks was a blip. “We’re actually on a bit of a comeback roll,” he said. He was excited about the region’s potential for green technology and the construction of HS2, a new Y-shaped high-speed railway that was going to transform connections between London and cities in the northeast and the northwest. “Rail track, ballast, concrete, cement—you name anything to do with trains, infrastructure, it’s an engineering, Midlands, Northern thing,” he said. Green ascribed the Brexit vote in Scunthorpe to “values and culture” rather than to economics—a sense of dislocation and of feeling disdained by politicians in London. Recently, I wondered how Green was getting on. In 2019, Scunthorpe was part of the “Red Wall” of Labour constituencies that flipped for the Tories. British Steel had changed hands once more. Now Chinese investors were planning to install new furnaces, which required fewer workers and were fed with scrap metal. For the first time since 1890, the plant would no longer produce virgin steel from ore. I met Green a couple of weeks before Christmas. He had left his job a few days before. He seemed relieved to be done. Seven local authorities in England have gone bust since 2020, including the one serving Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city. In North Lincolnshire, the council now spends about three-quarters of its budget on services for vulnerable children and adults—roughly double the proportion of a decade ago. “We’re still here,” Green said, ruefully. The saga of the steelworks continued. “It’s endless,” he went on. “Is it closing? Isn’t it closing?” Britain has had eleven different economic programs in the past thirteen years. We were in a teaching room at the University Campus North Lincolnshire, which opened a few years ago in the former local-authority offices. The old council chamber, built in the shape of a blast furnace, was now a lecture hall. The average student age was twenty-nine. Green was proud of the project. It reminded him of mechanics’ institutes in the nineteenth century. “People are using their own judgment to better themselves,” he said. “If you want a job in this area, you can get a job. We need more quality opportunity.” Green had had a clear strategy for Scunthorpe and the nearby Humber estuary, built around green technology and education. “I asked a question to my colleagues and politicians as well,” he said. “What sort of town do you want this to be in ten, fifteen, twenty years?” Britain has no equivalent strategy for itself. In September, Sunak weakened several of the country’s key climate-change targets. A few weeks later, he cancelled what was left of HS2, the new rail network. Only the stem of the Y will now be built, from London to Birmingham, at a cost of some four hundred and seventy million pounds per mile , with little or no benefit to the North. “I can get quite excited, agitated by that,” Green said. “It makes us look a laughingstock.” Green was studiously apolitical when we talked. I had no sense of which way he voted. But he despaired of the shallowness and contingency now at the heart of British politics, and the lack of narrative coherence—or shared purpose—about what these years of struggle had been intended to achieve. I asked if he ever worried that the country was in a permanent state of decline. “I think, at the moment, we are at the crossroads,” he replied. When will it end? Sunak says that he will call a general election in the second half of the year. The gossip in Westminster says that probably that means mid-November: a British encore, to follow the main event in the U.S. But it could come as soon as May. The Prime Minister began preparing the ground last fall, after his first year in office, by presenting himself as a change candidate—a big claim, considering the circumstances. In October, I went to Manchester to watch Sunak address the Conservative Party’s annual conference. He was introduced onstage by his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of N. R. Narayana Murthy, a founder of Infosys, the Indian I.T. conglomerate. (According to the London Sunday Times , Sunak and Murty have an estimated net worth of about five hundred million pounds.) Murty wore an orange pants suit, and she addressed Britain’s most successful political organization as if it were a local gardening society. “Please know that Rishi is working hard,” she said. “He shares your values and he knows how much you care about the future of the U.K.” Sunak has a quietly imploring tone. British politics was in a bad way, he explained. People were fed up. “It isn’t anger,” Sunak said. “It’s an exhaustion with politics, in particular politicians saying things and then nothing ever changing.” Sunak dated the rot back thirty years without explaining why, but, presumably, to indicate the fall of Thatcher. (Thatcher was everywhere in Manchester; she is the modern Party’s only ghost.) Having positioned himself as the country’s next, truly transformative, leader, Sunak offered his party a weirdly pallid program: the dismantling of HS2, plus two long-range, complex policies, to abolish smoking and to reform the A-levels—England’s standard end-of-school exams. “We will be bold. We will be radical,” Sunak promised. “We will face resistance and we will meet it.” Increasingly, Sunak has been pulled between the Party’s diverging instincts: to retreat to the dry, liberal competence of the Cameron-Osborne regime or to head off in a more explicitly protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-woke direction. In Manchester, the energy was unmistakably on the Party’s right. Suella Braverman, then the Home Secretary, magnetized delegates with a speech warning of a “hurricane” of mass migration. Truss staged a growth rally, and Nigel Farage cruised the conference hall, posing for selfies. (There is talk of Farage standing as a Conservative M.P.) Back in London, I had lunch with David Frost, an influential Conservative peer. “Rishi, I feel for him, in a way,” Frost said. “He’s just trying to keep the show on the road and not upset all these different wings of the Party. But the consequence of that is you end up with a sort of agenda which is not politically meaningful at all.” On January 14th, a poll of fourteen thousand people, which Frost facilitated, suggested that the Party is on course for a huge defeat later this year. The question is what kind of haunted political realm it will leave behind. Under Starmer, Labour has been tactical in the extreme, exorcising Corbyn’s left-wing policies (Corbyn has been blocked from standing for the Party at the election), while making vague noises about everything else. It has nothing new to say about Brexit and equivocates about its own tax and spending plans, if it wins power. The Party recently scaled back a plan to invest twenty-eight billion pounds a year in green projects. There is no rescue on the way for Britain’s welfare state. Osborne noted all this with satisfaction. “The underlying economic arguments have basically been accepted,” he said, of austerity. “It’s rather like the Thatcher period. Everyone complained that Thatcher did deindustrialization, and yet no one wants to unpick it.” By contrast, Cummings sees the two cautious, hedging leaders in charge of Britain’s main political parties—and the relief among some centrists that the candidates are not so different from each other—in rather darker terms. “They are deluded when they think it’s great that Sunak and Starmer are in. It’s just like they’re arguing over trivia,” he said. “The politics of it are insane.” I am afraid that I agree. It is unnerving to be heading into an election year in Britain with the political conversation so small, next to questions that can feel immeasurable. I put this to Hayes, the Tory M.P., when I went to see him in the House of Commons. “You’re arguing we have very vanilla-flavor politics, in a richly colored world. There’s something in that,” he said. Then he surprised me. “I think the key thing for the Conservatives now is to be more conservative,” he said. We were sitting in a bay window, overlooking the Thames. A waiter poured tea. Hayes seemed to relish the coming election. It was as if, after almost fourteen years of tortuous experiment, real conservatism might finally be at hand. “Outside metropolitan Britain and the university towns, it’s all up for grabs,” Hayes assured me. “Toryism must have its day again.” ♦

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