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Short Story: “Prime Minister’s Questions”

Thanks to developments in AI and VR, every voter now has the right to meet their political candidates one-on-one. These hyper-realistic chatbots look and sound exactly like their real-life equivalents, and they answer questions with 99.9% accuracy. So what happens when the British primer minister’s chatbot starts making some very provocative statements?
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Britain

Podium speaker tribune with flags of Great Britain and UK coat of arms. Briefing or press conference of prime minister or queen of UK Great Britain. 3d illustration © Maxx-Studio / shutterstock.com

December 17, 2023 04:33 EDT
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Something to consider when reading/listening: Would this type of hyper realistic chatbot enhance our elections?

You’re the one who convinced the prime minister to do it, they said, so you’re the one who should break the news. It sounded reasonable. But, although she’s made a career out of taking ambiguous stances on a number of issues, I know for a fact the prime minister is very much pro shooting the messenger.

When I enter her oak-panelled office, she launches into a monologue about the opinion polls and their imperviousness to political gravity. “They’ve not budged an inch,” she says, “They’ve not budged an inch. The damned things have not budged an inch.”

After making this same point about four more times, she finally looks at me. She narrows her eyes. “What is it?” she says.

“Hmm?”

“You’re doing that thing with your face?”

“My face, prime minister?”

“Out with it, Freddy.”

I straighten my tie and look up at the bookshelves. “Remember when I told you that they’d developed a chatbot based on the leader of the opposition?” Her face betrays no reaction. “And members of the public could put on some goggles and sit in a room with him and chat about whatever they wanted. It mimicked his facial expressions and mannerisms down to a tee and it really felt like you were in the room with him.” She nods.

“It meant potential voters could ask him anything and the bot, trained on every public utterance the leader of the opposition has ever made, would give the answer he would give. So the public, in quite a short space of time, began to feel as though they knew him.” She waves her hand, indicating she’d like me to get to the point.

“And somebody,” I say, “Somebody, can’t remember who, doesn’t matter who, but somebody suggested we should make one of those for you.”

“You, Freddy,” she says, “unmistakably you.”

“I might have been marginally ‘pro’.”

“You suggested it. You pushed it. You banged the table and said you’d consider your position if I said no.”

“Recollections may vary, prime minister. Look, look, that’s not important.”

“Is it a disaster, Freddy?”

“Well…”

“Out with it.”

“It’s very realistic,” I say. I don’t dare look at her. “Eerily so. People feel like they know you. They can sit in a room. They can pick your brain. The chatbot has humanized you, that’s what everyone’s saying.”

“But there is a problem?”

“Problem is a strong word, prime minister. Complication, perhaps, but I’d hesitate to say problem.”

“Out with it, Freddy. Out with it.”

“They’re asking you all sorts of questions, and in 99.9% of the cases, it really is answering exactly how you would. It’s very realistic. Very true to life.”

“But?”

“Hmmm?”

“But? The problem, Freddy? Out with it.”

“Ah well, yes, so. As I was saying. Very realistic. Very true to life. It answers questions as though it were…”

“I’m going to ask you one more time.”

I clear my throat. “Yes, of course. Of course. Quite right prime minister. I will… uh… Sorry, what was the question?”

“What’s gone wrong with the chatbot? With your chatbot? Your bloody idea. What is it doing and why is it a problem?”

“As I say, problem is a… is a…strong…”

“I shall give you a strong problem in a minute.”

“See, I think we can use this to our advantage.”

“Freddy.”

“And if you remember, two thirds of the cabinet backed the chatbot idea as well. We can’t pin this on one person.”

“It’s pinned on you like a tail on a tired old donkey.”

“We must all collectively…”

“Freddy, Freddy, Freddy.”

“But it is salvageable. It will just take some slight… delicate… uhm.”

“Just spit it out.”

“France,” I say.

“What?”

“Lovely this time of year. My wife’s parents have a chateau just off the uh…”

“I know your wife’s parents,” she says, “I went to school with her father. And if you don’t tell me this instant…”

“Shall I get us some drinks, perhaps?”

“You’ll drink exclusively through a straw if you don’t spit it out in three…two….”

“I… uhmm… well….You keep saying…”

“One.”

“You keep telling people…”

“Zero point five.”

“You keep telling people you’re going to invade France, prime minister.”


She motions as though she’s going to say something, but she can’t find the words.

“And not in a jokey way, either.” I keep my eyes away from hers. “You’re deathly serious about the whole endeavor. Unprompted, more often than not. They’ll be asking you — the chatbot version of you — about the economy, and you’ll say “We could double it overnight, if only we incorporated our slovenly neighbours.” Or they’ll ask about roadworks in their area and you’ll say, “I’ll build a road from here to the heart of Paris.”

And now the word has spread, nobody much wants to ask you anything else. There’s a relish in your eyes, prime minister, as you describe how you’d go about doing it. How you’d use the navy and attack at night. How you’ve dreamed about it every day since you were a young girl. How it was the whole reason you wanted to be prime minister in the first place. You talk about reversing the result of the Battle of Hastings. And how Churchill seriously tried to make Britain and France a unified country. And you say, prime minister, that nothing would give you greater joy than to wipe the smile of those cheese-munching, onion-sniffing surrender monkeys. And that is a direct quote.”

She puts two fingers to her lips. “So what are we going to do about it?”

“Well, first things first, we need to know where we stand.”

“Mmmhhmm?”

“So?”

“So what?”

“Is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“Do you want to invade France?”


She stares at me without expression. “Are you seriously asking me that question?” She walks towards me until her face is a few inches from mine. “Of course I don’t want to invade France.”

I nod, try to smile, try to act as though I never doubted it for a moment. “No,” I say, “Of course. Obviously. I mean…”

“You didn’t think I did, did you? You didn’t think the woman you’ve worked for for six years was harboring a secret ambition to storm the channel?”

It’s been seven and a half years but I don’t correct her.

“They don’t believe this, do they?” she says. “The public?”

“What?” I say, trying to laugh. “Do they believe you’re going to invade France? Can you imagine?”

“You’ve got the numbers?”

“Well…”

“Tell me.”

“Fourteen percent…”

“Fourteen percent of the public think I’m going to invade France?”

“No, fourteen percent think you’re definitely not. Forty-six percent think you will. And the rest don’t know.”


She lets out a solitary burst of laughter before her face turns back to stone.

“Forty-six percent,” she says. “Forty-six percent of our fellow citizens think I’m going to invade France? Forty-six percent?” She walks around the office, mouthing the statistic to herself. “How can they… how dare they… hold me responsible for the ravings of a robot? It’s a cut and dried case of machine error, is it not? The British public has accused me of many things before but this… this…”

“There’s this bizarre idea, prime minister, that somehow this chatbot has seen into your soul.”

“Preposterous,” she says, still pacing the room, “My soul? My soul. I’ve never heard such rot in all my…” She stops. Turns on her heels and stares at me. “Here’s a question. If forty-six percent of the British public think I’m going to invade France, why have the opinion polls remained indifferent? They’ve not budged for weeks.”

I thought this might come up. “Yes,” I say. “It turns out there’s quite a lot of support for the policy.”

“What?”

“See, the people who think you’re going to do it, they’re not, on the whole, hostile to the idea. And even a decent chunk of those who don’t think so, it’s… it’s more a case of them thinking it sounds too good to be true.” As I’m saying this, I try to remain entirely ambivalent. “The policy itself is more popular than both the government and you as an individual. And support is neatly dispersed across the country too.“

“Is that right?”

“Part of me suspects that if you did stand up in the House of Commons and say we’re declaring war, well, that could be the thing that gets the opinion polls moving in the right direction.”

She considers this. “You think so?”

“There’s a fervor out there I suppose to be part of something bigger, you know. For many of us, there’s a perception that history was set in motion before we were born and there’s so little we can do to affect it.” 

“They need something to believe in?”

“Precisely.”

“They want their lives to mean something?”

“Don’t we all?”

“And France? Invading France… this could be the thing that does it?”

“As a thought experiment…” 

“And there is genuine support for the idea?”

“It would seem so…”

“Interesting, no?”

“Well, I mean…”

She smiles. “A popular policy. A unifying policy. Something to make us feel like we’re in this together. This could be the moment that defines this nation for the next century. This could be the most important thing a British prime minister has ever done.”

I feel a heat rising at the back of my throat. “But of course, prime minister,” I say, “as we’ve already established, you don’t want to invade France, do you?”

She stares at me without expression. “Are you seriously asking me that question?” She walks towards me until her face is a few inches from mine. “Of course I want to invade France.”


Her eyes gleam with an intensity I’ve not seen in seven and a half years of working for her. Even the chatbot didn’t get close to this level of excitement. “To reverse the result of the Battle of Hastings?” she says. “To realize Churchill’s dream of a single united country? To have the Union flag lining the Champs-Élysées?

“I’d be bigger than Wellington. Bolder than Bonaparte. I’d have a column taller than Nelson’s.

“Of course I’ve dreamt of invading France, Freddie, just like every British prime minister before me. But I never imagined I’d have the chance to make these dreams come true.” She giggles — giggles — and for the first time, perhaps, in her entire adult life, she skips. She’s skipping around the room. Her excitement is verging on the manic.

“Somehow,” she says, amid fits of laughter, “somehow this chatbot has seen into my soul and…and…“ When she turns to face me, there are tears of joy running down her face. “Let’s do it. Let’s give those baguette-wielding frogs what’s for. Tell the First Sea Lord to have the navy ready for action. Get a lectern set up outside Number Ten. Forget the Commons, we’re going straight to the people. Get Gloria to sort out an outfit. It needs to be red, white and blue. And a beret. I’d like to wear a beret when I give the order.”

I pull the face she doesn’t like and allow her to consider the implications. “Yeah, prime minister, we really can’t invade France. That’s definitely not an option. It would be a breach of UN protocols and countless treaties. The navy would of course refuse to do it. We’d be stopped within moments. You’d be removed from office and may well spend the rest of your life in jail.”

Her face falls. She sits on the edge of her desk. She nods. And nods again. You can almost see the huge cloud hovering into view and blotting out the bright blue skies of her imagination. “I was joking,” she says, having never made a joke in seven and a half years. “Of course I don’t want to… of course I don’t… I…”

“No, prime minister,” I say. “Of course you don’t. Of course you don’t. Still, the chatbot eh? That was a pretty good idea wasn’t it?”

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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