This is an audio transcript of the Political Fix podcast episode: ‘Tory turmoil: Sunak stumbles towards end of year

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Robert Shrimsley
The collapse in Tory discipline over next year is gonna be the thing to watch for. That’s the biggest problem.

Lucy Fisher
Welcome to Political Fix, the Financial Times essential insider guide to Westminster. I’m Lucy Fisher. The FT’s Robert Shrimsley there talking about the government’s prospects. More from Robert shortly. Also in this episode, a deal is struck at the COP climate summit to transition away from fossil fuels. We’ll hear more about the UK’s performance on the world stage from our reporter who was there. To discuss all of this and more, Robert is here with me in the studio. Hi, Robert.

Robert Shrimsley
Hi, Lucy.

Lucy Fisher
And also on the pod today is the FT’s Miranda Green. Hello, Miranda.

Miranda Green
Hello.

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Lucy Fisher
So another week, another close shave in the Commons for Rishi Sunak, this time on his emergency Rwanda legislation about removing asylum seekers to the east African nation. The PM managed to persuade enough Tory MPs not to vote against him to avoid a defeat, but almost 30 defied the three-line whip to abstain. So where does this leave his leadership? Robert, is he fatally weakened by what happened this week or has he emerged from it somehow stronger?

Robert Shrimsley
No, I don’t think he’s been weakened by this week because in the end, the rebels over-reached. They talked themselves up far too much and in the end didn’t deliver on their threat. Although one could argue that the threat is still there down the line. But, you know, we had the sort of the worst of the Brexit-era reprise of these rather preening rightwing backbenchers, you know, five different groups all calling themselves I think the Research Group or the Common Sense Group who, you know, allowed themselves to be called the “five families” in this Godfather reference, forgetting, I think, well, the five families are all gunned down at the end of the first Godfather, spoiler alert.

I think in the end, Sunak came out of it OK because he faced them down, didn’t give any ground and they were the ones who were made to look a bit foolish. And they over-reached in all sorts of ways.  They wouldn’t go into breakfast with him and they were all rude to him. And so at that point, you’ve actually got to deliver the goods if you’re gonna behave like that. And they didn’t. Now, I doubt the revolt’s gone away and it could come back down the line. But, you know, he emerged the winner from this round.

Lucy Fisher
And just a few bonus points. Can you name the five families, these five factions?

Robert Shrimsley
So there’s the European Research Group.

Lucy Fisher
Right. One.

Robert Shrimsley
The Northern Research Group.

Lucy Fisher
Two.

Robert Shrimsley
The Common Sense Group.

Lucy Fisher
Three.

Robert Shrimsley
The New Conservatives.

Lucy Fisher
Yup, four.

Robert Shrimsley
And the Growth Group. Can’t remember . . . 

Lucy Fisher
Yes, Conservative Growth Group. Ding-ding! Miranda, it’s not just on the right that he’s facing pressure, is it, because now as we move ahead, the One Nation Group, Robert Buckland, former justice secretary, he suggested he wants to, was mulling over making some amendments to make sure that Sunak doesn’t follow through on his vow to the right to tighten this legislation.

Miranda Green
Yeah, that’s right. And actually, they’re quite numerous, the moderate Conservatives who are also unhappy with the bill at second reading but decided to support it. So in a sense, if it was just a numbers game, you’d think that Sunak would pay more attention to their concerns. And as you say, you’ve got Robert Buckland, you’ve got lots of people there who are not only lawyers but also have held positions as government law officers, as ministers. So they know what they’re talking about when it comes to the legal niceties and there is a threat that they will actually have Number 10 on the back foot when everyone comes back in January.

And also, of course, when it moves to the House of Lords, you’ve got a lot of legal brains in the House of Lords, not least on the crossbenches. And so they can argue that they’re not being partisan about the legislation, that they’re just worried about Britain’s adherence to the rule of international law. So I think, you know, the headaches are really not over for Rishi Sunak and he sort of started off his premiership and then said again the other day, unite or die, to his party.

But much as he’s kind of sailed through the drama at the beginning of this week, I think it would be wrong to think that the problem has actually eased, not least because, you know, all that fun stuff that you’ve been talking about, Lucy and Robert — you know, the five families, the psychodrama — the more that goes on, the less Number 10 is actually able to set their own agenda and talk about reforms that they might want to communicate to voters in the run-up to an election. And you sort of lose control of the narrative then in quite a serious way.

Lucy Fisher
Well, I think there’s certainly a lot in there. And I’ve been struck that although the prime minister’s trying to frame this as emergency legislation, he’s not bringing it back to the Commons next week, although it’s sitting for a couple of days. He’s not likely to bring it back in the first week of January either. It could be the middle of next month, several weeks hence, before he even tries to get it through the third reading. Such is the anxiety and nervousness in Downing Street about this. Robert, can I ask you about the brilliant column you’ve written this week? 

Robert Shrimsley
When you frame it like that, definitely.

Lucy Fisher
(Laughter) Your theory is this doesn’t really have anything to do with Rwanda at all when it comes to the pressure coming from the right. They already think that this election is lost and this is about the fight for the soul of the party after the next election.

Robert Shrimsley
I think it’s nothing to do with Rwanda, but it’s not the fundamental issue. The point is you have a caucus of MPs and in this case, one shouldn’t just think about the ones who are threatening to rebel because there’s also, you know, another chunk of MPs who sort of broadly agree with them but are a bit more loyal and a bit more likely to try and do damage to Sunak before the election. And what you’re seeing is an argument about where the Conservative party should be in the future, either going into the election or post-election. And it’s those people who think that immigration is gonna be one of the defining issues of politics in the future and who looks at some of the things you’re seeing both in the US and Republicans and on parts of Europe with Meloni or Le Pen and even Orban — although they can see his downsides — and they’re saying this is the kinds of . . . 

Miranda Green
I’m glad to hear that, Robert. Im glad to hear you say that you can see the downside to Orban of Hungary.

Robert Shrimsley
Some of them anyway. And they’re looking at this and they’re saying this is the direction that the right is going across Europe because immigration is gonna become one of the defining issues and we need to be like this. And they want immigration to be a central issue. They want the Tories to be talking about it all the time. They also want the row over the European Convention of Human Rights and they want to see Britain pull out. And I think what you’re seeing is an attempt to set the whole agenda for the Conservative party after the election.

I can certainly imagine this being a situation where people standing for the leadership of the Conservative party after an election defeat are sort of browbeaten into giving a commitment to review British membership of the European Convention of Human Rights or actually just leaving it. And I think one of the great things about being in opposition is you don’t have the responsibility for your policies and your beliefs, and you don’t have to look at the nuances and complexities. So the freedom of opposition will make it much easier to be hardline. And I think this is all about trying to set the frames of reference for the Conservative party after the election.

Lucy Fisher
Miranda, where do you think we are regarding the Tories’ fortunes? I mean, I was really struck by that very damning YouGov poll in the middle of this week showing that Rishi Sunak himself has now slipped to his lowest-ever favourability rating. He’s at minus 49, a 10-point drop from late November, and now hovering around the same level that Boris Johnson was at the time of his resignation.

Miranda Green
Yeah, it’s I think it is looking really bad for him. You know, the comparison that’s almost made is to 1997 when Tony Blair had his landslide victory against John Major. But, you know, although John Major was also kind of exhausted, had run out of ministers after 18 years, we’re only at 13 years now but it still certainly has that same sort of vibe of the end of an era for Sunak. But, you know, John Major was quite well-liked as an individual, and the economy wasn’t doing badly either in the run-up to the ‘97 election. In fact, you know, Labour inherited a pretty good scenario in that respect. So in a sense, Sunak’s plight is even worse than in the run-up to 1997.

And, you know, I think they’ve also, because of the events of recent years around Brexit, got this additional problem of fearing that voters could flee on the right to the Reform party. You know, I’ve been speaking to a lot of pollsters about whether the Reform party’s readings in the recent polls are real or not. I mean, they’re sort of going up towards 10 in some of them. And it’s felt that it’s a bit overstated in the polls that they should be that high.

But even so, you only sort of need the Tory party to be scared of voters leaving to support the Reform party — as they were the Ukip and then the Brexit party — for it to affect policymaking, the rhetoric in the election. I mean, you know, I asked a Sunak adviser at their party conference in Manchester when we were there together, Lucy. You know, are you hoping to do a deal with the Reform party as you did with the Brexit party at the last election where they stand down candidates to avoid splitting the vote on the right? And they said, well, we don’t need to do that. We just need to do a deal with Reform party voters. So that kind of shows you how they’re sort of opening up the possibility of the rhetoric being really, really harsh to attract those voters who are very anti-immigration. So, you know, I think those are slightly desperate measures for an end-of-era Conservative party.

Lucy Fisher
I think that point’s really interesting, Miranda, and something I’ve been struck by the Reform party, an area they’re trying to make progress on is by drawing attention to the gravy train narrative about parliament. I didn’t tune in much to the jungle this time. I don’t know about either of you, but I did watch a couple of moments and I saw Nigel Farage out there in Australia holding court, explaining to his fellow contestants how people who attend the House of Lords get £300 per day.

And I suppose that brings me on to another big development that’s hogged the limelight in the second half of this week, which is around the Tory MP Scott Benton. The standards committee has said he should face a 35-day suspension from the Commons for offering to lobby ministers and leak confidential information for up to £4,000 a month. Of course, if this suspension goes ahead, if there is a recall petition, this will be the seventh by-election that the Tories are facing following allegations of misconduct.

Robert Shrimsley
Well, I mean, actually, of course, the reason people like Scott Benton get caught out in these stings is because parliament isn’t enough of a gravy train for them. Whereas the European Parliament, which Nigel Farage is talking about and which he enjoyed, joined the gravy boat for many years. Parliament, actually, is quite . . . 

Miranda Green
European gravy lake, Robert. How about that?

Robert Shrimsley
European gravy lake. I like it.

Lucy Fisher
Sounds revolting.

Robert Shrimsley
Parliament is a little bit more restrictive and they actually, they’re always looking for outside income. But what it will do, it will just feed the general contempt for all politicians. I always think that with sleaze scandals they don’t tend to favour any political party, really. They just bring down the entire public view of parliament in general.

Lucy Fisher
Miranda, what have you made of this particular case around Scott Benton?

Miranda Green
Well, I strongly agree with Robert’s last point there, which is that it just generally lowers the tone and nobody in politics benefits. I mean, the criticisms of his behaviour by the committee that has recommended that he should be suspended is that his comment’s basically saying that he was for sale and implying that so were all his colleagues as MPs. They’ve said that was toxic and that it was sullying the reputation of the whole of the Commons and that is the problem. I mean, we’ve had this problem for a while though, haven’t we, because it’s the best kind of alibi in the world to say, well, everybody’s at it because it distracts attention from yourself if you’re a wrongdoer. And of course, you know, we don’t really have a system that’s corrupt in that way, but it all feeds into public perceptions.

And, you know, over recent years, all of the problems that beset the Johnson administration have, I think, lowered public trust in government and in the political class. Ever since the expenses scandal of 2009, actually, this has been a huge issue for voters. And actually, people I spoke to who’ve been out canvassing for all the parties have said one of the most depressing things in the run-up to this election we’re about to have is the general sense that the problems the country faces are serious and we don’t really trust any of you to solve them for us, not even the cost of living. And there’s actually polling saying that is true as well, although this by-election, if it happens, will be interesting because that’s a seat that Labour held from ’97 to 2019 and it might be a sort of red wall test to see if they can take it back again.

Lucy Fisher
And of course, next week we’re expecting to hear the results of the recall petition into Peter Bone in Wellingborough. A reminder: he was suspended for six weeks for bullying an employee and committing indecent exposure, according to a parliamentary watchdog. He has denied those charges.

Robert Shrimsley
Do you not think, Lucy, it is, I mean, sort of just how many MPs this Parliament have fallen victim to this new procedure under which the standards committee can trigger or, with the approval of the House, can trigger a by-election censure? I must admit it never occurred to me when this power was given that we would see so many people falling by this. You know, I sort of assumed rather that they’d be shamed into resignation or, you know, the voters would have their say at the next general election, which is how it used to be. I’ve been quite surprised by how many people have fallen victim to this. It would be interesting to see if we see a repeat in the next parliament or if people will have wised up to the risks.

Lucy Fisher
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. By my count, we’ve had six Tory-held seats have sparked by-elections. There has been one Labour, Chris Matheson and one SNP, Margaret Ferrier. But then we have seen people who’ve jumped before they were pushed — Owen Paterson, of course, and Boris Johnson. So I think it is a very interesting dynamic. But fast-forwarding to early next year, we could potentially have two more by-elections on our hands. Again, just very perilous situation for Rishi Sunak, isn’t it?

Robert Shrimsley
It is. And I think this is where some of the stuff, he had a win this week, but this is his big problem next year is the the breakdown of discipline. And the thing that gives the prime minister power, or a leader power, is the sense they’re a winner, the sense that they’re winning, you know. Why is Keir Starmer able to do all the things he’s doing at the moment? Because Labour MPs, whether they like them or not, think this man’s a winner. We don’t wanna mess it up. He’s got authority. We’re gonna stay on the right side of him and also, we don’t wanna blow our chances. Conversely, if you’re on the Tory side, you look at Rishi Sunak, you have another couple of by-election defeats, possibly. You think, this man is leading us over the cliff. It’s everyone for themselves. I’m gonna do what I think best serves me. So I think that’s the biggest problem, is just the collapse in Tory discipline over next year is gonna be the thing to watch for.

Lucy Fisher
And Miranda, even some Tory sort of strategists and those looking at the campaign are now sort of saying, well, you know, we think that a hung parliament is underpriced as an outcome. I mean, when you’re trying to argue that, you know, it was heading for a hung parliament rather than a rout, you’re not in a great place, are you?

Miranda Green
No, no, exactly. So although actually, I do think the chat about the potential outcomes is very interesting. I mean, you, Lucy, in your big piece with George earlier this week, were writing about the fact that Morgan McSweeney, the strategic supremo for Keir Starmer, had been doing a presentation to the Labour side about all the different potential outcomes and sort of drawing attention to the fact that the electorate these days is very volatile, which makes it hard to call.

So it’s not surprising in a sense that all of the top teams, I think, they’re sort of gaming potential scenarios, but I think it’s just also very difficult to see this government, you know, pulling off a win. So it’s kind of gradations of failure, isn’t it? Which is a long way from Sunak when he first came in looking like a fresh face. You know, now he’s having to answer questions about why he’s so tetchy, which is a long way from where we were just over a year ago.

Robert Shrimsley
I have to say, I did spot one of our colleagues taking a Liberal Democrat MP out to lunch today, which is always a sign that you’re hedging for a hung parliament.

Lucy Fisher
Well, they’re giving him the full works. Was it, there was the sort of the three-Michelin-starred lunch, Robert?

Robert Shrimsley
No, they probably weren’t that committed to the hung parliament theory.

Lucy Fisher
OK. (Laughter)

Miranda Green
I would say a crepe sandwich would mean not much buy-in for that theory.

Robert Shrimsley
Well, where’d you close the adjournment in Portcullis House? Where does that fit into the taxonomy?

Lucy Fisher
Oh, I think that’s . . . 

Miranda Green
Possible, but not probable.

Robert Shrimsley
Yeah.

Lucy Fisher
Yeah.

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This week saw a deal at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai, which some are hailing as historic. Despite the UK’s climate minister having to fly back to the UK to take part in the Rwanda vote, the UK says it is serious in its intentions to stick to COP targets on moving away from fossil fuels. The FT’s climate reporter Kenza Bryan is here to explain what the COP deal means. Hi, Kenza.

Kenza Bryan
Hi, Lucy.

Lucy Fisher
So first up, you were out in Dubai for the first week of the talks. Give us a sense of what it was like.

Kenza Bryan
I was there for the first week, which was really the trade show element of the talks — more so this year than any other year. There were tens of thousands of delegates there in the blue zone where climate negotiations take place. Many of those were fossil fuel lobbyists, bankers, people from the business world, communications people who were rubbing shoulders with climate negotiators. And that happens every year. But this year, the sheer volume of people who were there from outside, the kind of geeky climate negotiation and political sphere — that was unusual.

Lucy Fisher
Let’s talk about what was agreed. And I’m glad you’re here to parse it for us, because on the one hand, people were claiming this was a big success. It was a historic agreement. On the other hand, there’s been this huge row about the way the parties have junked the phrase “phasing out fossil fuels” and moved to “transitioning away from,” which many people think is weaker language. How big a deal is that change of language? And can you give us the top points of what was agreed?

Kenza Bryan
Yes. So UN climate chief Simon Stiell said that this really marked the beginning of the end for fossil fuels because it was the first time in nearly 30 years of having these yearly COPs that countries clearly and explicitly agreed that the end is in sight for coal, oil and gas. And that sounds potentially uncontroversial given that scientists have been saying that the end has to be in sight for a while. But actually, it was a really big deal.

And so nearly 200 countries agreed in this text to call for a transition away from fossil fuels in the global energy system with the aim of reaching net zero by 2050. So the language is relatively soft, but it’s tougher than some people expected, and it’s certainly tougher than the initial draft that really made waves when, as you said, it completely dropped this idea of phasing away from fossil fuels.

Lucy Fisher
But we’re going to see some of the oil states step up production. The US is set to hit its highest volume in oil and gas production ever. I mean, what’s your assessment of how realistic the ultimate UN climate goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is?

Kenza Bryan
Yeah. The key loophole in that text was that, A, the language wasn’t binding, and B, there was no clear date. So I think the best way of thinking about this agreement is that it sends a market signal and it’s not a legally binding contract, and nor will it be interpreted as such. So the national oil company of the host state, the UAE, so Adnoc plans to increase production capacity by 10 per cent to 5mn barrels a day by 2027. So that probably tells us all we need to know about how immediate and how binding the language itself is, which doesn’t make it meaningless.

Lucy Fisher
Let’s just bring it back to the UK. I mentioned Graham Stuart, the net zero minister, making this mad dash 7,000 miles back to the UK and then back to Dubai. Did that ruffle any feathers? What was the UK representation like? Were we sort of a minnow in this discussion?

Kenza Bryan
So the UK did announce about £1.6bn of funding for new climate projects. It announced a new wind farm in the North Sea. But I would say the vibes for the UK’s leadership on the world stage were not great, partly because, as you said, its head of delegation, Graham Stuart, the minister for net zero, did fly back on Tuesday. Rishi Sunak only spent a day on the ground. That said, the King and Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, both spent some time out there and the UK did strongly back this idea of a fossil fuel phaseout, which obviously the EU and small island states and various other countries felt very strongly about. So I think it was a real mixed bag.

Miranda Green
Robert.

Robert Shrimsley
I just found myself looking at these summits now, thinking this is sort of just a desperate attempt to keep the show on the road. I mean, they’ve virtually abandoned any hope of 1.5. Getting rid of fossil fuels is just a transitional ambition. I mean, did you have the sense at all that people are just going through the motions a bit on this?

Kenza Bryan
I think it’s really easy to feel cynical about COPs, given that . . .

Lucy Fisher
It is. (Laughter)

Kenza Bryan
Scientists have said we need to halve emissions in the next seven years. And even this year, the hottest year on record, they’re on track to rise by more than 1 per cent. So things are clearly not going great from a global warming point of view. But another way of looking at these gigantic yearly meetings is that they reflect the state of the world rather than necessarily shaping it. And if the state of the world is one in which it’s acknowledged that we need to move towards an end to fossil fuels, even if that’s in the next decade or the next two decades, that’s still a significant and specific change compared to where we were, say, two years ago when we saw those tears from Alok Sharma at the Glasgow COP conference, when the wording on just coal, not even coal, oil and gas had to be watered down at the last minute. So that is a change.

Robert Shrimsley
I think what would worry me from the global, from the climate change perspective is that it seems to me the politics is moving away from this in lots of places rather than towards it and actually five, 10 years ago, the global consensus was very much we have to act, we’ve got to get motoring. Now you’re seeing more and more governments either resiling from it or watering it down, saying, you know, we’re pushing this goal back another five years. We’re gonna do this but by 2050, not well before. And it just feels to me like the tide is moving against.

Kenza Bryan
Yes. And certainly there was a real emphasis at COP on this idea of a just transition, which basically means don’t make the poorest in society pay, because people are aware that it’s an easy win for politicians to say climate change is something that rich people worry about and it’s not for this electoral cycle. Nevertheless, compared to the optics of COP at the very start, which was being hosted by a petrostate run by the boss of a national oil and gas company, it still seems significant that they have acknowledged the beginning of the end. We don’t know when that end will come, obviously.

Lucy Fisher
Kenza Bryan, thanks for joining.

Kenza Bryan
Thanks for having me on.

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Lucy Fisher
And to round up this week, who are we picking for Political Fix stock picks? Miranda?

Miranda Green
Well, actually, you know, bearing in mind our early conversation about the Rwanda bill, I was tempted to buy all the cross-benchers in the House of Lords in a kind of mass festive splurge. But I think I’m probably gonna go for David Davis, actually, because the story of him seeing off some attackers who were beating up a homeless man in the vicinity of the House of Commons did really cheer me up and drew attention to the horrible, horrible every winter we have to, you know, think about what’s happening on our streets as a rich country in terms of the homelessness crisis, which is getting worse. So I was pleased to read that story. So I’m buying David Davis, which has nothing to do with his politics and everything to do with his attitude to the vulnerable.

Lucy Fisher
Yeah, well, I think good on him because how old is he now? Must be in his sixties.

Robert Shrimsley
Well into his sixties.

Lucy Fisher
But he’s a former special forces reservist.

Robert Shrimsley
Doesn’t like to mention it though.

Lucy Fisher
(Laughter) No, you wouldn’t know, no, because I’ve done deep research.

Miranda Green
Well, we’ll let him off this time.

Lucy Fisher
Robert?

Robert Shrimsley
OK. So I’m gonna go for a slightly obscure choice, which is Julian Smith, who is a former chief whip, former Northern Ireland secretary under the Conservatives, who basically has been drafted in by Rishi Sunak for sort of impossible missions. He was given a role in trying to pull the rebellious right back onside and shore up the government’s majority in the Rwanda vote, which also, by the way, speaks not very well of the existing whip’s operation.

I did think about selling them instead, but Julian Smith has also been playing a behind-the-scenes role in trying to get Stormont back into session and trying to pull the DUP back into the Northern Irish parliament. And so although he’s out of government and he’s got a high chance, I think, of standing down at the election — I don’t think he’s confirmed anything yet, but I think quite possible. I think he’s having a sort of Indian summer getting the government’s business done for it.

And in fact, there’s quite a network of ex-chief whips who the government can call on. Gavin Williamson, former chief whip, is also doing this kind of thing. So I’m gonna pick Julian Smith because he’s doing the Lord’s work for Rishi Sunak behind the scenes.

What about you, Lucy?

Lucy Fisher
I’m going for Vaughan Gething. It’s not often I willingly reference Welsh politics, but given that Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has stepped down this week, it looks like Gething is the bookies’ favourite to get back in.

Robert Shrimsley
I don’t know enough about the minutiae of the machinations of the Welsh Labour party. Being a frontrunner is never a good thing, but it’s something that if you were to win, you would have the leader of the Welsh parliament, the leader of the Scottish parliament, the prime minister, the mayor of London, all being people from immigrant descent. So when we’re having these enraged debates about multicultures and immigration, it’s just worth stepping back occasionally and looking at the fact that without much fuss or fanfare, the countries of the United Kingdom seem quite accepting.

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Lucy Fisher
Well, a very good point, and I think a very good point to end on. Robert, Miranda, thanks for joining.

Miranda Green
Thank you.

Robert Shrimsley
Cheers.

Lucy Fisher
Well, before we end, a quick word about the FT’s annual charity auction. You can bid to have lunch with some of our top columnists and editors, including Political Fix regulars Miranda, Stephen Bush and George Parker. They’re worth every penny. And the restaurants involved are donating meals for an excellent cause. All proceeds go to the FT’s Financial Literacy and Inclusion Campaign (FLIC). Go to FT.com/appeal to see what’s on offer. I’ve put a link in the show notes along with articles linked to today’s show, including Robert’s column, which are free to read for listeners. There’s also a link there to Stephen’s award-winning Inside Politics newsletter. You’ll get 30 days free. And don’t forget to subscribe to the show and leave us a review.

Political Fix was presented by me, Lucy Fisher, and produced by Audrey Tinline. Manuela Saragosa is the executive producer. Original music and sound engineering by Breen Turner. Rod Fitzgerald is the broadcast engineer. Cheryl Brumley is the FT’s global head of audio. We’ll meet again here next week.

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