Britain 2022 - The Year Ahead In Politics

2021 was another challenging year for British politics, as we continued to navigate the ongoing demands of a global pandemic, increased political scandal, and surprising by-election results. We also witnessed the largest global roll-out of vaccines in history, stronger climate change goals at COP 26 and a 20-year high of job opportunities. As we move into 2022, the booster programme provides a degree of hope, though much is still uncertain - how will government deliver their manifesto promises and what will the key government objectives be this year?

On 27th January 2022 Hanson brought a panel of experts together for its annual webinar looking at the year ahead in politics. 

The expert panel included:

  • Anita Boateng - Partner at Portland Communications. Anita previously worked at FTI Consulting and at the highest level of government as a special adviser in the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Justice and DWP.
  • Dr Hannah White OBE – Deputy Director at the Institute for Government. Hannah leads the Institute’s programme of work on government, parliament and the civil service.  Hannah has extensive knowledge of Westminster and Whitehall based on over a decade of experience in government. Her first book Held in contempt: what’s wrong with the House of Commons will be published in April 2022.
  • Steve Hawkes – Head of Strategic Media at BCW. Steve had a career in journalism spanning 25 years working in Westminster for a wide range of best-selling newspapers including The Sun, the Times and the Evening Standard.  
  • Sophia Morrell - Head of UK Public Affairs at UK Finance. Sophia has spent 15 years working in Westminster and the City, most recently as a Political Adviser to the Shadow Frontbench across HMT and latterly DWP.  

The panel explored the following topics:

  • With the ongoing global pandemic still high on the agenda, how will the government navigate the year ahead and get back on track with its manifesto promises? 
  • Can Boris Johnson move past 'partygate' and regain the trust of his party and the public? How might the government's relationship with the media influence this? 
  • What effect have the COP 26 goals had in real terms? And how will this change over the year ahead? 

How do you think the government will tackle the year ahead and regain trust with the public and its own party in order to push ahead with its manifesto?

Hannah: The key question here is what happens to Boris Johnson, because if he continues to be Prime Minister – or not - the picture will look very different.

If the Prime Minister stays, there’s a big challenge given evidence shows that PMs don’t get more popular over time. It isn’t easy to reverse a loss of trust and popularity so it will be a question of what the government can deliver in those circumstances.

In the meantime, it’s about dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and returning to manifesto commitments. This is the year that they need to start delivering some facts on the ground that people can see, otherwise by the time we get to the next election there won’t be anything to show the Red Wall. That is the task – regardless of whether Boris stays or not – if he goes a new leader will certainly need to find their feet before the next general election.

Steve: One of the key questions right now is if Boris was to go, who would replace him? And the jury is very much out on that. I don’t think we’ll see anything until the local elections and if that goes badly there may be a move. The key thing now is delivery, and that’s where Michael Gove’s levelling up plan is going to be so important. He needs to start mapping out how he intends to unite the country when the treasury won’t be able to give him any money. We need to see a proper 20-30 year economic vision and a plan for delivery on that.

My biggest concern over the revelations of recent weeks is what it does to politics and people’s belief in authority and respect for political figures.

Anita: The pandemic has taken focus away from the government being able to prove its commitment to policies that will make a material difference to the people who voted for Boris Johnson in 2019. The current volatility and vulnerability of the Prime Minister’s future is going to be one of the things that affects the government’s ability to deliver on anything. These issues and dynamics won’t necessarily be resolved by a change of leader - people don't really know why Boris Johnson appeals so much to the electorate and so it is a very difficult thing for them to unpick exactly what it is that they might be looking for in a new leader. The question around what it will take to maintain the electoral coalition is going to plague the government for the rest of this year.

Sophia: If the Sue Gray report is survivable, and Boris Johnson can move past that, there will need to be genuine contrition and humility to rebuild that trust with the public to show that the sacrifices that they made were taken seriously.

Rishi Sunak hasn’t yet had the opportunity to be a ‘peacetime’ chancellor, as it were – building that narrative around optimism and growth will be key if the government is to move the public’s mind past what has happened within the first couple of months of this year.

While the last few months have been very challenging for the incumbent government it does offer an opportunity for other parties. What can Labour and the Lib Dems do to capitalise on this volatility ahead of the next general election and for the year ahead?

Sophia: The Conservatives are traditionally seen as the party of law and order whereas Labour is traditionally seen as the party of the NHS, and these reputations can be quite hard to challenge. This perception of Johnson’s disregard for law and order is a real opportunity for Keir Starmer as a lawyer and someone who gives the perception of a person who follows the rules. Moving the public's mind on from the Jeremy Corbyn years and the perception of Labour as a very high spend party will definitely be a challenge. When scandals and crises hit the government it's the opposition's job to show themselves as a government in waiting, and that's all about having your policies ready and being able to go out strongly with consistent, on-point messaging.

This is also true of the lib Dems: building up the profile of their shadow cabinet and showing what they would do if they were able to play a role in a hung parliament, for example.

Anita: The question of competence is going to be something that continues to be a challenge for this Prime Minister, but Johnson can bring charisma and a broad sense of who he is.

Conversely, the Labour party has 200 policies and nobody can name any of them. It’s a problem that there is detail but no vision.

Starmer’s polling is largely flat but a lot of the volatility which you see within his polling is from his own base; people still aren’t quite convinced by him.

The Lib Dems are back to being a potential neutral third-party objector and that is something they can hope to build on in the next general election.

Hannah: For Labour, doing well in the polls because the Conservatives are doing badly isn’t enough and they need to have the policies in place which people want to see in order to get them elected as a government.

The SNP have quite a lot to gain from the current crisis and what is happening in Scotland should be very much taken into account.

Steve: The other party we must consider is the Reform Party, which has the strong possibility of coming back and creating havoc for Boris Johnson.

Tory incompetence is not going to hand Labour an election win and the question has to be where Labour will win the seats that are going to give them an overall majority.

The cost of living crisis and increasing energy prices are top of the agenda for many households this year. How can the government intervene to provide support where needed for households when the cost of Covid means that the public sector purse is already quite strained?

Steve: We’ll see short-term measures to tackle both issues but there is a need for more than sticking plaster politics. We can tackle the cost-of-living crisis and energy prices in the short term right now, but we also need a long-term plan to stop the pattern.

Sophia: There will have to be a package of short-term interventions to help people get through the next few months and the Chancellor and cabinet have a difficult decision ahead of them. More broadly, interventions like the warm homes discount and looking at the way that the price cap is structured is going to be really important.

On a more long-term basis, there needs to be structural changes to our economy to help people who live on such a small margin that they are heavily impacted by any changes in prices and inflation. The majority of people in poverty in Britain are in work and that is a huge issue. Levelling up will involve ensuring that there is a level of resilience built into our economy so that working families have more of a buffer to withstand cost of living crises.

Anita: Fundamentally, the fate of the government is determined on something like inflation which it broadly has no control over. The government has to make choices regarding this impending crisis, and I think it will instinctively lean towards tax and benefits to navigate it.

Is this Conservative government able to stand up to borrowing to fund some of this or is it only going to be funded through tax increases? - which will not go down well with its core voters.

Hannah: If Boris Jonson does stay, he will be weakened and what he wants to do will inevitably be shaped by the dynamics of the backbenches.

There are lots of other key issues facing the government, some of which we’ve mentioned already: levelling up, COP 26, Scottish independence. What do you think are the other key areas that the government really needs to focus on this year to make a difference?

Anita: I think the Union question matters the most. As a country we don’t pay enough attention to the politics of Northern Ireland and stasis will be incredibly destructive to the Conservative party and, more widely, to the country.

Hannah: I wouldn’t neglect Wales either. The other obvious distraction is the potential war between Russia and the Ukraine which is a problem in terms of the implications for Europe- in migration, cost-of-living and energy prices. This will create another unforeseen leadership challenge for the Prime Minister.

Steve: Domestically, Brexit will continue to be a huge issue and the Northern Ireland Protocol is a massive part of that. In theory, Brexit was about deregulation but everything that they try and do sees Northern Ireland as a separate state – until the Protocol is sorted it’s impossible to deliver the Brexit dividend.

Sophia: Issues around Scottish Independence certainly aren’t going to go away any time soon.

Off the back of COP 26 last year, this year is key in looking at the delivery of the high-level commitments that were made and the impact that they will have on individuals.

It has been a hugely challenging two years for young people who are affected by the cost of living challenges, particularly when it comes to housing. For children in education, it has been an incredibly disrupted period and government need to think about what they are offering them in terms of the social contract – these young people are tomorrow’s voters.

Following COP 26 what do you think 2022 has in store in terms of dealing with the climate crisis?

Sophia: There has to be a practical roadmap for what COP 26 means for individuals, and people will be looking to the government and corporations to outline that. On a much higher level, we should also see a detailed roadmap of how we meet the obligations that we are committed to fulfilling by 2050: what our financial markets will look like and how it will impact investments, for example.

Steve: My fear is that whoever wants to win the Tory leadership race will inevitably have to show that they will dial back on the green agenda as there’s a theory that Boris has gone too far. There’s also a concern that there’s a feeling in number 10 that we hosted COP 26 and ticked that box, now let’s move on to something else.

Anita: I think that the government roadmap is one of the most detailed in the advanced world and shows a ‘landing zone’ for what a net zero UK could look like. The challenge that we have in achieving net zero is that it requires a level of technical innovation which has never been seen before. The government is moving at as fast a pace as possible given the number of obstacles that are coming down the track but it will be a huge challenge.

Hannah: The UK is currently missing a serious conversation about the things that we all have to do differently in order to achieve net zero and what the cost of that will be. Until that conversation starts, we have a very limited chance of realistically achieving the targets set. The government also needs to set up better apparatus in order to track its progress and also drive it.

The government must also consider the tax system and how it works in relation to the net zero target. Continuing never to raise fuel duty is just not consistent with these commitments to net zero.

In the event of a new Tory leadership, do you think there are any policies that are particularly vulnerable to reversal?

Hannah: Both the green agenda and the national insurance rise seem vulnerable.

Sophia: It very much depends upon who the potential candidate is – for example, Liz Truss has suggested that she hates red tape and excessive regulation, and you would expect to see that reflected in her leadership policies

I can’t imagine that Rishi Sunak, for example, would want to reverse the National Insurance rise because of the challenges on the public purse at the moment.

Anita: Tax and spend, climate change, planning reform, levelling up (is it all about the northeast and not about the rest of the country?) small boats and immigration, debt and deficit regulation, the BBC and other cultural issues - all of that is on the table.

How do you think the Scottish independence debate will shape the year ahead?

Anita: People think of the Scottish Conservatives as the last vanguard against independence and the more the schism between Westminster and the London Conservatives and Scottish Conservatives widens, the more politically potent that question becomes. I don’t know that this year is the decisive year but fundamentally, the reason why support for independence is going off is because of the perceived sense that Westminster is not paying attention to Scotland and also because of the perceived competence of Nicola Sturgeon and her party in taking Scotland through this Covid 19 crisis.

Hannah: On the whole Union question, the pandemic has been hugely significant in reminding people of the realities of devolution and where policy-making powers now sit. The Covid enquiry which we expect to start this year will also have consequences for leadership across the UK in terms of looking at decision making. Public perceptions have been formed and I think that Nicola Sturgeon has done well out of it - this will inevitably shape her strategy going forward.

Sophia: Scotland is fundamental to Labour’s electoral success. Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership has been very popular during the pandemic, and it has reminded everybody of the divergence between Westminster and Scotland. I think that that's absolutely going to continue to be a challenge for Labour in whether they can win those seats back whenever the next general election does come around.

Keen to watch this webinar back? Click here to watch the full webinar.

Posted on 11.02.2022

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