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“Stability and strong government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband”. So wrote David Cameron in May 2015, presenting the voting public with a prophecy that contained some of the right words in the wrong order.
Documentary series Laura Kuenssberg: State of Chaos sees the BBC’s former political editor examine “how close our political system [came] to falling apart” since Cameron’s now-infamous tweet. Largely revolving around conversations with prominent MPs, senior civil servants and special advisers (both past and present), the show offers a grimly engrossing yet predictably unedifying oral history of the shifting, tumultuous Conservative rule from the Brexit referendum onwards.
If a week is a long time in politics, then the seven years condensed into three parts here — taking in four changes in leadership, a no deal, a prorogation, a pandemic, a mini-budget, countless cabinet upheavals and innumerable ignominies — seems like a geological epoch. The Catastrophic Period, perhaps.
The Theresa May era, with which the series begins, feels particularly remote, and less characterised by eye-catching scandal than by inaction at the top and revolt from the backbenches. While it’s hardly surprising to hear from civil servants that “nobody was ready” for Brexit, and from MPs that May was vexingly indecisive and uncooperative, the severity of party infighting at this time is laid bare in unexpectedly blunt terms. Arch Brexiter Steve Baker, for instance, says he has been “a systematic plotter who’s tried to remove a prime minister”. “It doesn’t give me any great pleasure,” he adds while looking pretty pleased with himself.
A subsequent episode about the Johnson government — or rather the Cummings one, as various contributors imply — broadly consists of familiar phrases such as “casual attitude”, “conditional loyalty” and “abdication of responsibility”. But there are some more notable revelations and allegations. The sacked Foreign Office official Josie Stewart suggests there was an underlying expectation that civil servants “cover up for mistruths if necessary [and] don’t tell politicians things they don’t want to hear”, while Helen MacNamara, former deputy cabinet secretary, discloses that concerns were raised with Buckingham Palace over No 10’s conduct towards the civil service.
The assembled MPs meanwhile — who include Sajid Javid, Kwasi Kwarteng, Amber Rudd and the dismayingly ubiquitous trio of Matt Hancock, Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg — may speak with less euphemistic bluster than on news programmes, but tellingly seem far more interested in passing judgment, affirming their loyalties and showing off their foresight than reflecting on their own failings. That Kuenssberg arguably pulls her punches, and speaks solely to Hilary Benn for a view from across the House, will probably only fuel those who accuse her of political bias.
Still, if State of Chaos isn’t as rigorous and probing as it could have been, anyone who has spent the last decade watching what Kuenssberg calls “an epic drama with no lasting heroes” will find this set of behind-the-scenes bonus features worthwhile. Next week: Liz Truss’s fleeting cameo.
On BBC iPlayer now