The British economy had never really recovered from the triple whammy of the disappointing outcome of Brexit, the pandemic, and the Ukraine war. It was the only economy in the G7 which had still not exceeded its pre-pandemic size. Investment had dried up. Exports were down. Long Covid had resulted in high levels of sickness absence or people withdrawing from the workforce altogether. Many jobs remained unfilled, hampering the economy's ability to grow.
The Ukraine war had led to shortages of key commodities, supply chain difficulties, and a huge spike in energy prices which had fed into inflation and the cost of living generally. The British people had suffered a huge drop in their standard of living and were not best pleased about it. Rising interest rates were feeding into huge increases in mortgage repayments and eating into people's disposable income. Consumer confidence was way down. Strikes were endemic, and even when resolved left a bitter taste. There was a sense that many voters were waiting in the long grass to give the Conservative party a bloody nose.
So, I was expecting a very upbeat briefing by the PM. Green shoots, corners being turned, immigrant numbers down, government initiatives being rolled out, inflation down, more trade deals in the pipeline, you know the sort of thing. Anything for a few positive headlines during the summer silly season when parliament is in recess and real news is at a premium.
Instead, I was shocked at the PM's tone and demeanour. This was the first time I had ever met Rishi Sunak, or even seen him in the flesh. My previous beat in Ireland had allowed me no such privileged access. A meeting with Neale Richmond, a junior government minister, was the height of my reporting scoops. No wonder I had been recalled to head office! But Sunak seemed unable to shake off the sense of gloom and doom in the briefing he had just been given. I found him to be intelligent and engaging, but surprisingly unable to hide his feelings.
His frustrations were clear. The government finances were under extreme pressure, and there was no cash available for the sort of imaginative schemes governments like to announce when a general election is in the offing. The contrast with Ireland couldn't have been greater, where ministers were busily trying to decide how many extra billions they would allocate to public expenditure increases, tax cuts, paying down the national debt and salting away in a sovereign wealth fund to be used only for long term infrastructural projects or profitable investments abroad.
Trying to empathise with the PMs plight, I asked him a question about how he would far rather be in Leo Varadkar's shoes... only to be shocked by his reaction: "that b*stard", he exclaimed, "he really screwed us on Brexit, and I'm still trying to repair the damage with the EU and the USA!"
I mumbled something about having interviewed Neale Richmond, almost my sole claim to journalistic fame to date, and he had explained to me in great detail how the British had failed to take account of the delicacy of the Northern Ireland situation and the peace process in particular, and that if there had to be a customs border between Britain and the EU, the only practical solution was a border in the Irish sea.
This didn't mollify the PM one little bit. "Who is that little sh*t to tell us how to run or own country! I have enough on my plate without having to deal with the DUP and their allies in the ERG as well. I thought we asked the Tribune to send a more objective reporter?"
"I'm not taking sides in the debate" I spluttered (thinking of my editors warning not to f*ck up this great opportunity to get a journalistic scoop), I'm sure he was only stating the Irish government (and EU) position, but Ireland seem to have recovered from the pandemic and the Ukraine war much better than we have". (Trying to be diplomatic, I avoided mentioning the B(rexit) word...)
"And how many billions in military aid have they given the Ukrainians I might ask? - they can't even defend their own airspace. Neutrality my a*se, they're just freeloading on the rest of us!" the PM retorted.
At this point I wished the ground had swallowed me up. My big chance, and I really had f*cked it up!
The conversation moved on to opinion polls, by-election results, policy announcements and campaign strategies with the other reporters keeping well clear of any contentious comparisons with other countries. "And another thing" he flashed a quick glare at me, "Germany isn't doing much better either!" he said, in response to a question nobody had asked.
As the session wound up, the press secretary reminded us all that this was a background briefing only, there were to be no direct quotes used, and any references could only be to "a senior government official". It was important to get the message across that while the opposition is on holiday, this government is still working hard to build a better Britain! That was a quote we could use to headline our pieces, she said somewhat sheepishly, I thought, although some reporters seemed to lap it up, scribbling the phrase into their notebooks.
As I prepared to leave, she called me back. "The PM wants a word", she said rather ominously.
I expected a roasting.
Instead, the PM seemed in jolly good form all of a sudden saying that we hadn't met before and was wondering how I had found my stint in Ireland. I began by apologising for bringing it up, but he brushed it aside, and said that he didn't want that other lot (the other reporters) leading with that story because the real issue is how we in Britain deal with the problems we are confronted with, not what some small tax haven, reeling it in at the expense of everyone else, was doing.
I didn't know what to say.
"From my perspective" I stuttered, "I can't understand how Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are so unpopular when they have the fastest growing economy in Europe, full employment, huge government surpluses, and rapidly declining debt".
"People don't care about that sort of thing" he countered, "it's all just big numbers to them. People worry about making their mortgage or rent payments, they worry about housing, health, childcare and educational services. From what I can see, the Irish government isn't delivering on the basics".
I hastened to agree, anxious to find some common ground with the PM, and hoping that fences could be mended before word got back to my editor that I wasn't to be sent to a private press briefing again.
But it was what happened next that really shook me. "How do you think the Irish government would react, if we were to announce a border poll, to be held in, say, 12 months' time?".
"Huh!?! Why would you want to do that?" I stalled for time, "both you and the Irish government are heading into a general election in the next few months, and calling a border poll would really set the cat among the pigeons. Sinn Féin would be delighted, because they have been calling for one all along, and it would give them a great boost ahead of the Irish elections.
"Precisely", he said. "I don't owe that Varadkar a thing, and he has been far too effective in uniting the EU against us!"
I tried to reel off all the problems I could think of: "Do you really want Sinn Féin leading the next Irish government? And won't this be a great boost to the SNP campaign in Scotland? And what about Northern Ireland, isn't it unstable enough as it is!"
"Precisely", he said. "That Donaldson chap needs a rocket up his a*se. He keeps creating problems and expects me to solve them for him. I had no end off trouble even getting a meeting with Biden. The Windsor Framework is one of my few successes and he wants to deny me even that. He wrecked Teresa May's career, and he isn't exactly helping mine. And as for the Scots, I don't care if they vote SNP or Labour; the point is they won't be voting for us anyway."
"Eh yes, but isn't calling a border poll a bit drastic? Sinn Féin won't be any easier to deal with and couldn't there be violence in Northern Ireland? You won't be thanked if you open that can of worms. And aren't you supposed to wait until opinion polls indicate a clear majority in favour of re-unification?" I countered, still trying to recover my equilibrium.
"We'll call a border poll when it suits us. Opinion polls count for nothing in the real world. Just look at my polls now (The Conservatives were 20% behind Labour at the time). And as for Sinn Féin, we have a lot of information on all their leaders which they won't want to leak out into the public domain. I don't anticipate having too many problems with them, to be honest. Anyway, this is all conjecture. I'm not really seriously thinking about it. This conversation never happened. Do you understand?"
"Yes, yes, absolutely, I understand! I knew you were only really testing me out as to what I knew about the Irish situation... no responsible government could consider calling a border poll right now. What would be the point? It's hardly going to affect the result of the English general election, is it?" I offered.
"Yes, absolutely", he said. "As I said at the press briefing, we need to focus on what we, as a country can do to improve matters, and not worry too much about what other countries are doing. Labour have no ideas as to how do things better, and we really need to focus on that".
And with that, the meeting was over.
As she whisked me outside the building, the Press Secretary reiterated that the briefing was private - no direct quotes - and that I had been extremely privileged to have had a few minutes with the PM alone. "Hardly anyone has gotten that treatment in recent times" she noted, and then asked: "By the way, what did you talk about?"
"My lips are sealed", is all I said, with a knowing smile. She must have been wondering why a rookie reporter was sent to an important private briefing, never mind him having a few minutes alone with the PM.
I'm not sure she was all that happy with my answer either, but I didn't care. I felt I had passed my first major test in reporting back in England, and couldn't wait to tell my editor I had had a private conversation with the PM.
"Oh! Huh! What did you talk about?" he chuckled, unable to conceal his surprise. "Oh, just about my experience working in Ireland" I replied "He was interested to know my opinions of the Irish government ministers. He didn't seem too impressed with Varadkar and his gang" I said, delighted with my new role as confidential advisor to the PM.
"Don't be losing the run of yourself" was all my editor had to say. I think he thought I was making a meal out of some small talk on the fringe of the briefing. "Rishi likes to cultivate relationships with reporters. Don't be taken in!" was his final word.
But I was.
I couldn't help thinking whether the PM was flying a kite and really thinking of calling a border poll in the run up to two general election campaigns. Did he need a distraction from Britain's economic woes that badly? Was his political situation really that desperate? Why would you call a border poll just to stir things up? Wouldn't Labour accuse him of gross irresponsibility? Even the Irish government wasn't calling for one.
And if the Border Poll was lost, wouldn't he be blamed for the break-up of the UK? Was saving £15 Billion on the Northern Ireland subvention really that critical to Britain's economic future?
But then again, the UK left the EU for less, saving about £7.5 Billion per annum in net contributions to the EU. But was this really all about money?
People had bitter memories of Boris Johnson's slogan "We send the EU £350 million a week - let's fund our NHS instead." I could hardly see a similar slogan about Northern Ireland going down well with the English electorate. It would only remind people of the divisive Brexit referendum campaign and Sunak's role in supporting something that hadn't turned out quite as people expected.
I put the matter completely out of my mind. I assumed Sunak was just trying it on with an inexperienced reporter. I imagined him laughing to himself at leading a junior reporter on a merry dance.
My next engagements with the government press office were quite mundane. Some of my more senior colleagues had returned from leave and were grabbing the more important assignments. I was therefore quite surprised to be invited to another private briefing in Chequers some weeks later. My senior colleagues wondered openly why I had been specifically invited. Was I to become one of Sunak's lapdogs? My report on the first briefing hadn't been particularly earth shattering - just the usual stuff on all the things the government was doing to turn the economy around.
My editor opined, to general hilarity, that perhaps the PM needed some advice from a younger demographic. "He knows he's lost you lot!".
I can't say I wasn't chuffed, but had to pretend it was just another routine assignment that my senior colleagues were probably better off missing. After all, they had heard it all before. Many times.
/To be continued: Chapter 2: The bombshell