Matt Chorley at Sheffield Memorial Theatre and Leeds City Varieties: Times Radio host on how politics has only got 'more mad'

Journalist and comic Matt Chorley had Partygate jokes lined up for his tour. He tells John Blow about how his material changed in weeks and how politics has ‘got madder’ since 2005.

Ten years ago, David Cameron’s Conservative government was in damage limitation mode amid outcry over one of the most pressing matters in UK politics: the so-called ‘pasty tax’.

Chancellor George Osborne had planned to impose VAT on such goods and reporters wanted to know when Cameron himself had last eaten one.

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He seemed to recall it was a branch of The West Cornwall Pasty Company at Leeds station – one that determined sleuths discovered had actually shut two years earlier. No 10, though, stuck to its line.

Matt Chorley.Matt Chorley.
Matt Chorley.

What a difference a decade makes.

After Brexit, Donald Trump’s rise to the Oval Office, Covid-19 and now war in Europe once again, “it feels like we’ve gone on quite a journey,” says Westminster journalist and stand-up comedian Matt Chorley.

But the Times Radio host knows all too well how politics can shift dramatically in just a day, never mind a decade. Having been part of sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005 with the sketch group Big Day Out, he took a 14-year break from comedy before coming back with his stand-up debut This. Is. Not. Normal. in 2019 – when a general election was called.

So his latest show Who Is In Charge Here? – which comes to Sheffield on Sunday and Leeds on March 23 – is “more election-proof as a result”.

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Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the Yorkshire Post office in Leeds in 2016. Picture: Simon Hulme.Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the Yorkshire Post office in Leeds in 2016. Picture: Simon Hulme.
Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the Yorkshire Post office in Leeds in 2016. Picture: Simon Hulme.

Then just over two weeks into the tour, Russia invaded Ukraine, shifting the focus from the serious yet comically ripe ‘Partygate’ scandal to the grave implications of bloodshed, nuclear threats and another refugee crisis.

“This was in a world where I thought we were emerging from the pandemic and there was a serious question of whether or not the Prime Minister broke the rules that he demanded of the rest of us, a serious enough one for me to tackle with some jokes about cake. Yeah, well the very future of the West (now) seems to be at stake,” says Chorley.

“I went on stage on the Thursday night that the invasion started and hadn’t planned any new material and just said, ‘Look, we’ve got a choice. We can spend two hours talking about World War Three or two hours talking about cake’, and they all shouted out ‘cake’. And so we, to a large extent, carried on as if the war wasn’t happening.”

He adds: “Clearly there is nothing remotely funny about what is happening in Ukraine. There’s something a bit funny about Putin and his big long table and all of that, but also he’s responsible for terrible things that are currently happening. But now, a couple of weeks in, what we’ve got is British politicians doing what they always do, which is making **** of themselves, which actually then gives me material which isn’t making fun in any way of the situation in Ukraine.”

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He’s thinking of examples like Kevin Foster MP, Minister for Safe and Legal Migration, suggesting that those fleeing Ukraine could qualify for a seasonal worker scheme – i.e. picking fruit – or the “discovery that there is only one person in the world still takes Liz Truss seriously. Unfortunately, that’s Vladimir Putin. The guy from the Kremlin (Dmitry Peskov) claims the reason they put the nuclear warheads on alert was because something that Liz Truss said.”

Chorley’s tour gives audiences something of a comical précis of British politics, exploring its soap opera relationships and plot twists.

“My show to some extent just brings everyone up to speed: OK, so those are the people in the cabinet; he’s a wally; she’s a bit daft; he possibly knows what he’s doing; that’s why those two hate each other; he makes out he hates him but actually wanted him to be Prime Minister. People leave with this sort of ‘Previously on Britain’ catch-up so that then, hopefully, they think the next time I see these characters on the telly, I know who they are and how they interact with each other in politics.”

There is some audience participation – though nobody need fear getting dragged up on stage, he stresses – including a referendum in the interval which “as with all referendums, everyone accepts the result in full and goes forward with a spirit of unity and harmony”.

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Sometimes he will take questions and also, he hosts his ‘Can You Get To Number 10?’ quiz, which will be familiar listeners of his weekday Times Radio show.

There’s a reason that Chorley, 39, of Fleet, in Hampshire, wants to make the show accessible.

“Politics is one of those things where people say ‘I’m not really into politics. I don’t follow it. It’s not for me, it’s boring’, or ‘It’s complicated’ like we’re talking about rugby league or something. And actually, being completely high-minded for a moment, politics is really important and everyone should take an interest in it because we all have to pay the taxes whether it’s for schools or hospitals or the response to conflict or whatever. All that stuff matters. And so, anything that helps people in their understanding of politics I think is really important.”

Chorley has been a political journalist since 2005 during a career in which he has worked for the Press Association and publications Western Morning News, Independent on Sunday, MailOnline and The Times, for which he is a columnist.

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It was exciting for him personally but domestic politics at the start, he says, was “a bit boring”.

“Tony Blair had just won his third landslide victory. David Cameron hadn’t even become leader of the Conservatives. (Then) one of the biggest stories in British politics was that David Cameron didn’t have a tie on. This was seen as a huge departure in British politics.”

And, as mentioned, “everyone completely lost their minds when the Government put 5p on a pasty”.

But as we’ve established, seismic events have taken place since.

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Chorley says: “(Previously) you had a Home Office scandal that blew up, then another big announcement on reforming hospitals, and then there would be a crisis in schools. It feels like politics has got madder but the variety’s gone. So we had however many years of non-stop Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, we went straight from Brexit into two years of the pandemic, now we’re into war. In each time, the madness of it seems to be ratcheted up.”

Consequently, he believes that the public’s engagement with politics has increased “massively” in the years since he started to report on it.

“There’s a reason why Matt Hancock having an affair was such a big story – because he was a celebrity. Because every night he was in our rooms at five o’clock telling us what we could and couldn’t do. Everybody knew who he was. So when he’s caught having an affair, it’s not some Cabinet minister you’ve never heard of, it was that Matt Hancock off the telly.”

Who Is In Charge Here? comes to Sheffield Memorial Theatre on Sunday March 13 and Leeds City Varieties on Wednesday March 23. For more information visit