I opened my new standup show, Basic Lee, 14 days after Liz Truss took office. Do you remember her? The cheese one? I joked to the Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati in attendance at the Leicester Square theatre that there was little point in pursuing my usual practice of tying a personal story into the contemporary political one, as the new Liz Truss government would certainly not last until the tour ended in April 2024. Perhaps it wouldn’t even last to the end of that night’s two-hour show. Accordingly, I read my opening 15 minutes of material on Truss and her cabinet off flimsy cards, explaining there was no point in learning it. How we laughed! And how the world laughs at us.
On a Thursday less than two weeks later, in between my leaving home and arriving at the Leicester Square theatre, the thuggish chancellor of the exchequer became the first dim domino to fall and my tight five on Kwasi Kwarteng’s budget bit the dust. As I rolled it out for one last time to an audience of Anti-Growth Coalition members cackling at the impossibility of my job, I felt like the neolithic fisherman of standup, trying to spear the salmon of slippery political targets in the fast-moving, and inevitably sewage-filled, chalk stream of the Conservatives’ collapse. Pity the refugee! Pity the pensioner!! But above all, in these dark times, pity the professional satirist!!!
My half-term break with the kids was three days away, so I spaffed Kwarteng up the wall, just as Truss had done herself, and hoped any further prolapses of the collective Conservative anus would at least happen during my time off, leaving me ready with rewrites on returning to the stage on 2 November. Inevitably, the Truss government was removed within days, because it was totally shit, and with it went most of my opening 15 minutes, which were totally great. It was almost as if the men in grey suits of the 1922 Committee were trying to make life as difficult as possible for the jobbing liberal comedian trying to hold a tightly structured two hours together.
My now useless routine about the newly defenestrated Ranil Jayawardena, the 50-day environment secretary, by then performed to nearly 10,000 virtue-signalling wokeys, was now as irrelevant and forgotten as Jayawardena himself, the Paul Squire of environmental politics. The pro-fracking policies he was about to have to suck up are now overturned too, as revolving Rishi Sunak rotates back to the anti-fracking commitments of the original 2019 Tory manifesto, like a frighteningly banal Victorian spinning toy made of elastic bands and wood. History conspired to drain the very notion of Jayawardena of all meaning. He is gone. And there is no evidence of his ever having been there. We will not see his like again. If indeed we ever did.
Ranil Jayawardena’s replacement is Thérèse Coffey, who is perhaps better positioned than her predecessor to understand the hedgerows and moorlands, as it looks as if that is where she sleeps and forages for food. Sadly, there is little mileage for my post-Truss standup set in portraying Coffey as a badger, as a born-again feminist at the Daily Mail will accuse me of misogyny, before penning another article about the unfair allure of Angela Rayner’s reproductive organs. (“But will they bewitch dishy Rishi?”) In her 50-day tenure as health secretary, Coffey alarmed medical professionals by recommending that henceforth antibiotics were thrown like sweets by clowns in the streets to anyone who wanted them, even if they weren’t ill, dangerously weakening their efficacy. In her environment secretary capacity Coffey is expected to announce subsidies for Japanese knotweed cultivation, while establishing a protected reserve for Asian hornets and Colorado beetles in her bloomers.
I had a tight 10 on Nadhim Zahawi, who had suddenly become equalities minister, and there was something innately funny about the equalities minister’s horses having been previously warmed at the taxpayers’ expense while your gran froze at the energy company shareholders’ behest. But now Zahawi is the minister without portfolio. And so is Gavin Williamson. In short, Zahawi and Williamson haven’t got a portfolio between them. They do, however, have some previously warmed horses and a tarantula spider called Cronus. If Williamson is able to do as much damage to the idea of portfolios as he did to the education system there will be no portfolios left. Children will ask us: “What was a portfolio, Grandad?” And we won’t quite remember, but will know their disappearance was something to do with the minister without portfolio.
Former culture secretary Oliver Dowden takes on the arcane role of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but will it be worth thinking of anything funny to say about him? It’s not quite clear what the job of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is. But because Dowden is bringing to it the same level of understanding he brought to the culture secretary post he is expected to announce on Monday that his favourite Lancasters are Burt Lancaster, “because of when he was on the beach and all sea went on him”, and the Lancaster bomber “because it had machine guns as well as bombs”. And Matt Handcock has pointed out that a “duchy” is actually “a kind of Jamaican iron cooking pot and so having a chancellor of a duchy in the Conservative cabinet proves that we live in a diverse and tolerant country”.
Round and round it goes. God, I wish it would stop! Police officers who are exposed to obscene material online receive counselling, but those of us required to contemplate wave after wave of incompetent and corrupt Tories in the course of our satirical duties are left to fend for ourselves. Is it any wonder we turn to drink?
Stewart Lee’s standup shows Snowflake and Tornado are both currently available on BBC iPlayer. Basic Lee tour dates at stewartlee.co.uk