John Crace on the villains of 2023: ‘We used to debate whether she was dim or vindictive. The answer appears to be both’ | Politics

Suella Braverman

The great debate used to centre on whether the former home secretary was just very dim or very vindictive. The answer to this conundrum now appears to be both. First, we had her enthusiastic support of the Rwanda policy. The idea of sending small boats refugees to a country that has been deemed unsafe by the United Nations. So far, no refugee has yet been deported to Rwanda. So that worked well. Then she acquired a barge that turned out to be riddled with legionella. So far, only a handful of people have been housed there. It turns out that Braverman is good at talking about new ways to be unpleasant to foreigners, but less so at turning it into a reality.

Illustration: Edith Pritchett/The Guardian

In the summer, she gave a speech to the totally unhinged New “Make Britain Better by Having More Babies” Conservatives (AKA the National Conservatism conference) which was a clear leadership marker. And only last month, she was declaring homelessness to be a lifestyle choice. For those who are bored with being warm and not being assaulted. Anyone for glamping? Braverman was far from done, though. She then did her best to stoke up hate before a pro-Palestinian march with an opinion piece in the Times and duly got exactly what she wanted. She was eventually sacked by Sunak. All the better to stir up division from the back benches.

Villainy in a nutshell A tent? You spoil us.
If they were a movie villain Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge, with less charm and worse blazers.

Sam Bankman-Fried

To most normal people, SBF could be filed under shyster from the off. On the grounds that if something appears too good to be true then it probably is. But to the gullible, hipster elite he became the poster boy for cryptocurrencies – at one point in 2022, SBF was ranked the 41st richest American – by founding FTX, a crypto exchange in which countless idiots deposited billions. Imagine their surprise when they discovered their money was so crypto that it no longer existed, as the scheme collapsed into bankruptcy. FTX had been a not-so-complicated fraud after all. In November, SBF was convicted on seven counts of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. He’s due to be sentenced in March 2024. No doubt hoping to be sent to a crypto jail.

Villainy in a nutshell A fool and his crypto currency …
If they were a movie villain Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects: the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world that, er, crypto exists.

Vladimir Putin

Almost without fail, every year you get some expert declaring that the Russian president is terminally ill and has only months to live, and every year Putin defies his critics and comes up with new ways to inflict pain and misery on his own people, his enemies and the rest of the world. For much of the last two years, Putin has focused his energies on his illegal war in Ukraine. This year, he also managed to fall out with Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner group, the Russian mercenaries spearheading the fighting in Ukraine, who appeared to launch a coup attempt by ordering his tanks to converge on Moscow. In the event, the tanks stopped short of Moscow and it appeared that some sort of truce between Putin and Prigozhin had been brokered. Less than two months later, Prigozhin’s private jet exploded in suspicious circumstances.

Villainy in a nutshell There is nobody who can’t be sacrificed on a whim.
If they were a movie villain Imagine a Bond villain, but he’s a total prick.

Dan Wootton and Laurence Fox

For ever linked as the GB News double act who were fired for making and laughing at on-air misogynist remarks about journalist Ava Evans. Fox was once a promising actor – it helps to be part of an acting dynasty – but has since crashed and burned. He now thinks being generally not very bright, unpleasant and a fanboy of Douglas Murray makes him an exceptionally interesting campaigner for free speech. Really, his friends – if he has any – should take him to one side and suggest a spell in rehab. There is life after Lewis. And not just as the leader of the far right, populist Reclaim party. A party too demented even for Nigel Farage.

Illustration of Laruence Fox with a loud hailer surrounded by pigeons
Illustration: Edith Pritchett/The Guardian

Wootton was a showbiz hack on the News of the World and the Sun before joining the MailOnline and GB News. Albeit a hack who always thought his own career was far more newsworthy than any of the celebs he wrote about. Where Wootton goes from here is anyone’s guess. He’s believed to be lying low in Scotland, hoping against hope that someone might want him back somewhere. Their loss is our gain.

Villainy in a nutshell Gone and not quite forgotten. But we’re working on it.
If they were movie villains Kiwi Biff Tannen and Norma Desmond.

Michelle Mone

Remember the pandemic? That time of collective national trauma when everyone – with the obvious exception of anyone working inside No 10 – pulled together. Tried to do the right thing. For the collective good. Well, it turns out that we were all mugs. Because for the sharper mortals, the Covid years were primarily the perfect business opportunity. A chance for chancers to make a killing. Step forward Michelle Mone. Or Baroness Mone, as she has been titled since 2015 when she was admitted to the Lords for services to lingerie. Or something. In November, she suddenly remembered she had, in fact, had something to do with PPE Medpro, a company created at the start of the pandemic that had zero track record in making PPE. What Mone did have, however, was the gift of the gab and she had the contacts. So she started lobbying ministers for PPE Medpro to be included in the PPE contracts “VIP” lane – whoever would have guessed that a VIP lane would be abused? This, remember, was for a company that hadn’t even been incorporated, let alone manufactured any PPE. The company went on to win more than £200m in PPE contracts (and some of the PPE was allegedly defective) while Mone managed to squirrel away £29m into an Isle of Man account. The government is now suing PPE Medpro for £122m plus costs. It’s people like Mone who made Britain ­great.

Villainy in a nutshell What’s the point of a pandemic, if not making yourself rich?
If they were a movie villain Mean Girls’ Regina George. Stop trying to make fetch PPE happen!

Thérèse Coffey

Here’s a little-known fact that’s destined to be a pub quiz classic. Who did Liz Truss appoint as her deputy PM? Yup, for all of 49 days, the country was on a knife-edge with Coffey a heartbeat away from power. In Westminster, her incompetence is legendary. As a reward for being useless, Sunak made her his minister for the environment, food and rural affairs – until she resigned in November. During her tenure she seemed to have made it a matter of principle to do next to nothing. Take the farmers. Coffey went all the way to Birmingham to give a speech at the NFU conference in which she basically insulted her audience. Then barely took any questions because she wanted to catch a train back to London. They run every half hour. But her greatest legacy? The fact that water companies have carried on pumping sewage into rivers and seas in industrial quantities. Not that things have improved since she left. It’s hard to believe, but a top executive at Anglian Water is Karen Barclay, wife of Steve, the new secretary of state at Defra.

Villainy in a nutshell The woman for whom anything is too much trouble.
If they were a movie villain The Penguin in Batman Returns. Keeps a colony of rare birds in a literal sewer. Loves cigars.

Liz Truss

Illustration of Liz Truss holding placards saying “We love Liz” and “Go Liz”
Illustration: Edith Pritchett/The Guardian

A politician we hoped we’d seen the back of, Truss magically appeared at the Tory party conference in Manchester where she was treated as the unofficial messiah. Her fringe speech – guest of honour, one Nigel Farage who isn’t even a Conservative party member – was the hottest ticket of the conference. The queue started forming two hours before she was due to speak and loads of us – including me, who was officially banned – were locked out. You might have thought that Truss would have wanted to begin her speech with an apology for the mini budget of 2022 that left the country near bankrupt and mortgage holders having sleepless nights. Not at all. Truss doesn’t do contrite. Rather she doubled down. The reason she had failed was not because she had been wrong, but because she had not been Liz enough. She should have made even more unfunded tax cuts. Worryingly, she appeared to be entirely serious.

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Villainy in a nutshell Wrecked the British economy then wrote a book called … Ten Years to Save the West.
If they were a movie villain Richard O’Brien’s hapless, yet determined, paparazzo in Spice World. Needs Bunton et al to tell her she’s living a meaningless life and ought to pack it in.

Dominic Cummings

Most of us hoped we had heard the last of Boris Johnson’s adviser in No 10 when he was sacked at the tail end of 2020. But Cummings resurfaced in autumn to give evidence to the Covid inquiry. His appearance was partly to explain why everyone he has ever met were “useless fuckpigs”, “morons” and “cunts” – but mostly to let the country know that Johnson was a dangerous narcissist who was unable to make up his mind about anything, was unable to perceive the gravity of the pandemic and would have let hundreds of thousands more people die had not Cummings intervened to personally run the country. Most of us had known Johnson was a liability for years – as must Cummings, as he had allowed Johnson to be his useful idiot throughout the Vote Leave Brexit campaign. However, only Dom chose to keep quiet about this and immediately joined his team when he became PM. So, save the “nation’s hero” label for a fuckpig dim enough to fall for it, Dom.

Illustration of Dominic Cummings burning a photograph of Boris Johnson
Illustration: Edith Pritchett/The Guardian

Villainy in a nutshell The man who always knew Johnson was unfit to be prime minister. But helped put him in No 10 anyway.
If they were a movie villain Hannibal Lecter: convinced he’s the smartest man in the room. Could bite your arm.

Jordan Henderson

The former Liverpool midfielder has not been at all happy with the reaction of UK fans since his move to the Saudi side Al-Ettifaq in the summer. During his appearances for England, Henderson has been booed. He has made his displeasure known, saying he deserves better after 12 successful years at Anfield – many of them as captain – and more than 70 appearances for the national team. The fans see it rather differently. They see a footballer who had earned a reputation as a high-profile LGBTQ+ ally – near the end of his career who is looking for one more substantial payday and isn’t fussy about where that money comes from. Suffice to say that women’s and gay rights don’t feature too highly on the Saudi agenda. Henderson’s defence – such as it is – is that he will be using his place in Saudi to raise the profile of women and gay rights. Mmm. We’ll be the judge of that.

Villainy in a nutshell March 2022: Qatar’s human rights abuses are: “Shocking, disappointing and horrendous.” October 2023, speculating on the Saudi bid for the World Cup 2034: “It’s exciting times for them as a country and I think it will be a special tournament if they end up getting it.”
If they were a movie villain Allison Williams in Get Out, an ally right up to the point where …

Elon Musk

How do you make a small fortune? If you’re Elon Musk, you start with a large one. Time was when Musk was just some weird billionaire whose weirdness we observed disinterestedly from afar. But over the last year, many of us have been forced to engage with him as he attempts to bulldoze himself into our consciousness. Most contact has been through X, the social media platform that has become immeasurably worse since he bought it a year ago for $43bn. Under the guise of free speech, X has become a haven of competing hates where the shoutiest people congregate. No wonder it has lost millions of users and millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Musk also recently prophesied the end of work at Rishi Sunak’s AI summit. Unhelpfully, he didn’t seem to have any interest on how the rest of the world would get by without it. That’s a problem way below his pay grade.

Illustration of Elon Musk with a dead blue bird in his hand. The bird has an X in its chest
Illustration: Edith Pritchett/The Guardian

Villainy in a nutshell In just the last month, Musk has wasted billions of pounds on blowing up another rocket and endorsing an antisemitic tweet.
If they were a movie villain Iron Man breaks bad.

(Lord) David Cameron

That man walking down Downing Street. It can’t be … Surely … ? It is. It’s Dave. Make that Lord Big Dave Cameron of Chipping Norton. Recently installed as foreign secretary by Sunak in a last desperate attempt to try to salvage something from the wreckage of his time as prime minister. For the past seven years, Cameron at least has had the grace to remain somewhat in the shadows. Sitting in his £25K shepherd’s hut bashing out a self-serving memoir. Cosying up to China and charging for meet and greets on the lucrative international Yesterday’s Politician circuit. Lobbying government hard on behalf of his old mucker, Lex Greensill. So blatantly that he got his knuckles rapped by the Commons. Just the life of an ordinary, jobbing millionaire grifter. But forget all that. Because Sunak reckoned there were no suitable Tory MPs worthy of being foreign secretary – he could be right – and dragged Lord Big Dave back into government. This is the man who brought austerity to the country during the coalition years. Want to know why no public services work properly now? Lord Big Dave can tell you. He starved them of cash. Then there was Brexit. Cameron accidentally taking the UK out of the EU by calling a referendum he hadn’t prepared for to settle the differences of the Tory right. The country still hasn’t recovered. And this is competence. Still, look forward to him trying to bring peace to the Middle East with a referendum.

Illustration of David Cameron with an umbrella in the mode of Mary Poppins flying into Parliament.
Illustration: Edith Pritchett/The Guardian

Villainy in a nutshell It was the casual whistling after the resignation speech that was the final straw.
If they were a movie villain Terminator 2’s T-1000, having reformed after a few years in a vat of molten steel/a shepherd’s hut.

Depraved New World by John Crace is published by Guardian Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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