Home Featured POLITICO London Playbook awards 2023: All the winners from a wild year in UK politics
POLITICO London Playbook awards 2023: All the winners from a wild year in UK politics

POLITICO London Playbook awards 2023: All the winners from a wild year in UK politics

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LONDON — It was meant to be the year two quiet technocrats, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, brought calm to the fevered Westminster swamp. Unfortunately SW1 didn’t get the memo.

Politics remained pretty much as wild in 2023 as it has been since David Cameron — back in action as U.K. foreign secretary — last stalked the corridors of power. 

POLITICO hardly need remind you that with a general election looming in Britain and Donald Trump battling for the U.S. presidency, next year is unlikely to get any calmer.

But before we embark on the joys of 2024, it’s time to honor those who excelled in 2023 with the London Playbook awards.

Minister of the year

Honorable mention to Grant Shapps for managing to hold down five Cabinet jobs in the space of 12 months — imagine the sheer number of briefing notes he’s waded through. Scotland Secretary Alister Jack also makes an outside bid after helping trigger the demise of the SNP by calling its bluff on gender reforms.

But the 2023 award goes, somewhat improbably, to low-key Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, in part simply for surviving. (Three of his four immediate predecessors did not even manage a year in office.)

He also somehow managed not to become a public hate figure despite the truly dire state of the nation’s finances. On the stickiest of wickets Hunt was calm, amiable and even landed some popular(ish) budget measures on issues such as childcare, National Insurance and the NHS workforce plan. Sometimes not being hated is quite an achievement.

Shadow minister of the year

Hunt’s opposite number Rachel Reeves might have been a shoo-in after raising her public profile while impressing business leaders with her iron grip on Labour’s spending pledges … until that whole awkward plagiarism thing (more of which later).

Talking of books, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting surely merits an award (the Jess Phillips Cup?) for the world’s longest — and loudest — publicity campaign for a book about … himself.

But this year’s prize goes to Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones, finally rewarded with a shadow Cabinet role after making Commons business committee hearings box office events — and subsequently becoming a fixture of pretty much every Labour broadcast round.

Backbencher of the year

Miriam Cates was cruising to victory after founding the New Conservatives with pal Danny Kruger and making waves on the Tory right. Almost single-handedly she is pushing the party toward a more robust stance on family values, with headline-grabbing pronouncements on sex education, falling birth rates and trans issues, and is even tipped as a future leader by certain well-connected hacks. 

But she stumbled at the final hurdle thanks to a mysterious standards committee investigation into her conduct, of which we’ll presumably learn an awful more next year.

Pipping her at the post, then, is Commons home affairs committee Chair Diana Johnson, whose tenacious battling on behalf of victims of the infected blood scandal saw the first parliamentary defeat for the Sunak administration this month.

Sacking of the year

Honorable mentions for Tory party Chair (and ex-Chancellor) Nadhim Zahawi over — what else? — his tax affairs, and Diane Abbott for a letter she wrote suggesting Jewish people do not experience racism.

But there can only be one winner: Step forward Suella Braverman. After pushing the boundaries of collective responsibility more times than the commission which decides where constituency lines are drawn, she was finally sacked as home secretary after ignoring Downing Street’s demands to edit an article she’d written criticizing the police.

The only surprise was that it took so long, following a procession of attention-seeking outbursts including claims that homelessness is a lifestyle choice and asylum seekers pretend to be gay to get sanctuary. And that was just November.

Suella Braverman, delivers her speech on the third day of the Conservative Party Conference on October 03 | Carl Court/Getty Images

Resignation of the year

So many candidates this year: Ex-Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick’s show-stopping departure last month, timed to cause maximum difficulty for the government over the Rwanda bill. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s “bold face” resignation press conference in which she claimed to be exhausted … only to be arrested shortly afterward as part of a major investigation into SNP finances.

And of course Boris Johnson’s tactical exit from parliament to avoid the indignity of being kicked out over that damning Partygate report.

But for sheer longevity we’re giving it to Johnson ally Nadine Dorries, who delivered less a resignation and more a slow-motion flounce, taking a leisurely 81 days from announcing her “immediate” departure to actually handing in her papers as she huffed over the highly principled, not at all self-serving matter of her blocked elevation to the Lords.

Op-ed of the year

Only one contender: Liz Truss’ crie de coeur of a 4,000 word “essay” in the Telegraph in which she blamed a “powerful economic establishment” for her defenestration as PM rather than, say, her own powerful economic cock-ups.

The article marked something of a comeback for Truss, signaling her intention to be a thorn in Rishi Sunak’s side on every issue possible, from economic growth to China to, um, letting kids smoke cigarettes. There will be plenty more of that in 2024.

Speech of the year

Playbook still has flashbacks from Penny Mordaunt’s cringeathon “stand up and fight” conference speech, and that time Suella Braverman took herself off to America to rant about multiculturalism (with a personal film crew in tow) was quite a thing as well.

But nothing compares to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s spine tingling address to both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall in February. Who can forget the awe and solemnity as he begged for fighter jets to assist in the war against Russia with the words: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.” 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses parliamentarians in Westminster Hall on February 8, 2023 in London | POOL photo by Stefan Rousseau/Getty Images

Special adviser of the year

He juggled the newsiest beat, the most ambitious Cabinet minister and the most contentious government policies, and yet somehow kept his boss exactly where she wanted to be — on all the front pages — right through to the year’s end.

It was never not controversial, but Suella Braverman’s man Jake Ryan has to be Playbook’s SpAd of the year. 

Political adviser of the year

OK so he’s not exactly a political adviser, given he’s employed by a humble (sort of) backbench MP.

But James Davies, who works for Matt “lockdown files” Hancock, has been forced to toil harder and more creatively than any of ‘em in 2023. Give that man a pay rise.

Scoop of the year

Another stellar year for photographer Steve Back, aka Political Pictures, whose devilishly simple tactic of taking long-lens photographs of official-looking papers carried by gormless politicians and officials as they wander up Downing Street proved devastatingly effective once again. 

It was Steve who spotted the Treasury documents revealing that the useful part of HS2 was about to be scrapped, weeks before the government was ready to go public. The resulting speculation and criticism completely derailed Tory conference and ruined Rishi Sunak’s attempted reset.

Broadcast round of the year

Tory Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson did his best to snaffle this award just about every time he took to the airwaves, but Gillian Keegan swooped in and torpedoed his bid with her hot-mic moment in September.

After playing a straight bat on a mammoth and very tricky series of interviews on the RAAC school concrete crisis, the education secretary finally fell foul of the first rule of broadcasting — remember the camera is always on. Keegan turned to interviewer Daniel Hewitt when she assumed the camera had stopped rolling to ask why she hadn’t received thanks for doing a “fucking good job” when “everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing.” 

Of course the camera was still rolling … the camera always is.

Excuse of the year

Honorable mentions to MP Scott Benton, for the sheer number of excuses after he was caught in a lobbying sting, and ex-Conservative peer Michelle Mone for outright brazenness in saying lying to the press didn’t count and wasn’t a crime, both in December.

But the award goes to Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, who got caught red-handed plagiarizing Wikipedia in her new book about female economists — and then somehow tried to turn it into an attack on Tory gaffes. 

“If I’m guilty of copying and pasting some facts about some amazing women and turning it into a book that gets read, then I’m really proud of that,” Reeves said. “That’s better than copying and pasting the policies of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng.” See what she did there?

Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer delivers her keynote speech to party delegates on day two of the Labour Party conference | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Gaffe of the year

Honorable mentions to Rishi Sunak for forgetting his wife had links to a childcare firm while giving tax breaks to, um, childcare firms, and Tory London mayoral candidate Susan Hall, who claimed to have been pickpocketed on the tube — only for her wallet to be found wedged between two seats on the Jubilee Line.

But the award goes to Scottish government minister Michael Matheson, whose kids ran up an £11,000 data roaming charge using his taxpayer funded parliamentary iPad while on hols in Morocco. The mums and dads of Westminster feel your pain, Mike.

Career change of the year

Sue Gray’s transmogrification from Whitehall vampire slayer to Keir Starmer’s consigliere was a genuine coup for Labour.

No wonder the outraged Tories demanded she be put on extended gardening leave when her signing was announced in March. Sadly for them, revolving door watchdog ACOBA ruled a six-month stint was sufficient. Labour Party staffers have been living in awe/fear ever since.

Comeback of the year

The jaws of live news anchors are still being scraped off studio floors following the return of David Cameron to the political fray.

Rarely has there been a reshuffle moment like the sight of that black government Daimler purring into Downing Street, and then the emergence from the vehicle of the former PM. Since then, Dave’s upbeat charm and unbowed conviction that all will be well has livened up SW1 no end. Politics needs characters … he is certainly that.

Outfit of the year

Honorable mentions to King Charles’ Greek tie at COP28, at the height of the Elgin/Parthenon marbles kerfuffle, and Keir Starmer delivering his conference speech covered in on-fashion-point glitter.

But the winner, obviously, is sword-wielder-in-chief Penny Mordaunt, whose iconic teal dress and hat with gold trim from King Charles’ coronation is now on display at Speaker’s House.

Social media post of the year

Possibly the hottest category of all in 2023, with three foot-in-mouth posts tied for the runner-up spot. 

Early in the year, Rishi Sunak managed to film a clip now deleted from Instagram showing him in a car without a seatbelt, for which he was promptly fined by the police.

MP Andrew Bridgen’s tweet comparing the COVID vaccine to the Holocaust led to him parting ways with the Tories in April.

And Tobias Ellwood’s weird video on X in which he spoke warmly about *checks notes* the Taliban resulted in his departure as Commons defense committee chair in September.

But nothing made quite as many waves as Labour’s down and dirty tweet suggesting Sunak wanted to spare child abusers from jail, which even some senior party MPs found pretty grubby.

The general election gloves were well and truly off … Roll on 2024.

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