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Westminster 2020: Highlights from our political panel event

WESTMINSTER 2020: Highlights from our political panel event on 19 November 2019

Featuring our expert panel:

  • STEVE HAWKES (chair) – Head of Strategic Media at BCW
  • JAMES MORRIS - Managing Director at Edelman
  • HANNAH WHITE - Deputy Director of the Institute for Government
  • POPPY TROWBRIDGE - ex-Director of Communications at The Exchequer & columnist for the Times and The Guardian
  • BEN KENTISH - Political Correspondent at the Independent

The past year saw Westminster consumed by Brexit. Political parties splintered, a Prime Minister has resigned, and political discourse disintegrated. 

In an attempt to break the deadlock Britain is back to the polls for its first December election since 1923 and political parties are battling it out on the campaign trail with some new, and some not so new, promises.

This week Hanson Search assembled a panel of experts to reflect on where British politics is at present, how the political parties are faring in the General Election campaign, and what they predict will be the top challenges and opportunities for the government taking us into the next decade. 

Chaired by Steve Hawkes, head of strategic media at BCW and ex-deputy political editor at The Sun, here are their predictions for the next crucial year in politics.

Read all the highlights from the discussion below. 

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PAPERS VS POLLS

“If you want to understand what’s going on in the election don’t read the newspapers, read the polls,” advised Edelman’s James Morris. 

He continued: “The top news story last week focussed on the royal family’s plans for Christmas day, not the election. People in SW1 confuse the political pages at the front of the newspaper with the national debate and this is particularly true during an election campaign when politics is at the very top of the news agenda – often the truth is that our political reporting and the quality of our politicians means that nothing gets through to anyone.”

A BREXIT ELECTION, OF SORTS 

Ex-Special Advisor to Philip Hammond, Poppy Trowbridge, said that it is a Brexit election of sorts, certainly from the party and campaigning perspective. Both main parties and minor parities have chosen to include “significant borrow and spend policies”, with huge capital spending programmes having been proposed by Labour.

In terms of what this means for the next year, Ms Trowbridge said: “Undoubtedly the deficit is going to rise, and this signifies a complete change in attitude for a Conservative party that has built itself around fiscal prudence.”

James Morris said the election should not be characterised as “a Brexit election”, rather it is “a post-Brexit election”. 

Mr Morris said that most people want to get Brexit done so that they can concentrate on something else, and that is why the Conservatives are in a strong position. 

“The result will not be a mandate for any specific Brexit outcome more than the referendum was, which is potentially good as it gives an enormous amount of wiggle room.”

POLITICAL LANDSCAPE POST-ELECTION

The first thing we could expect after the election is another Queen’s Speech, said Hannah White: 

“Boris Johnson has suggested that Parliament will be back before Christmas and we could have a Queen’s speech as early as the 19th December - whichever party wins the election will want to show that they’re hitting the ground running.” 

The Independent’s Political Correspondent Ben Kentish said that whatever the outcome of the election, “we’re going to have two very different parties afterwards.” 

“If Boris Johnson returns to parliament it’ll be on a very different coalition to the one which David Cameron created in 2010. It’ll be on the back of former Labour votes in places like Dudley and Grimsby and what that means is that priorities for the Tories are going to have to be very different going forward. A Boris Johnson majority government will need to keep the sort of voters on board that are very different from the more traditional Tory voters.

“If we assume that Labour is not heading for a Number 10 majority government, the real question then is ‘what happens next?’ which leads to, ‘when will Corbyn go and who will win?’ The membership is not going to change, it will be someone of the left and we’ll end up with two parties looking much as they do now, shaped very much in the image of their leaders,” predicted Mr Kentish. 

Poppy Trowbridge cautioned that the other certainty is that “Brexit’s not going anywhere” and will dominate the agenda for the next decade. 

“No matter what domestic policy comes out of the new government, Brexit will continue to dominate.” 

Additionally, she anticipated that the climate and digital will become issues which are a permanent part of election platforms for all parties: “Both form such an integral part of spending and investment plans for both main parties anyone involved in either of these will be a winner long-term.”

BORIS JOHNSON 2020: A ‘ONE NATION’ TORY?

“On Brexit Johnson’s taken a hard line but his immigration policy is liberal. With spending on public services there has been a huge shift, partly because the general public has had enough and the economy has recovered, but also the voters the Tories now need to win are in the West Midlands and the North West and they have very different priorities to those that the more traditional Tories have.” – Ben Kentish.

“If you break it down issue by issue – will he increase spending compared to the previous administration? It looks like it. Will he be more liberal on immigration? Probably. Does he believe in a bigger share of the state taking control of the economy? No.” – James Morris.

“Boris is a one nation Conservative and he’s doing a job as Chief Executive of an incredibly divided party which hasn’t quite yet figured out exactly where it’s going to fall yet. He has moved publicly to the right and I believe that many of those who we perceive as moderate to the right have also done so, therefore what reason does he have to move back to the middle?” - Poppy Trowbridge.

WILL THE ROLE OF SPEAKER BE REFORMED?

Whoever wins will want to rectify the uncertainties that Bercow’s decisions have meant for parliament and what can be achieved in the House of Commons, said Hannah White. She said the key questions will be over emergency debates, amendments to business motions, and also the amount of time allowed for MPs to question other ministers in the chamber.

“You need to have a Speaker who is balancing all the different principles which govern how parliament is organised; enabling the house to make a decision it wants to make, allowing minority voices to be expressed, etc. Someone who sits down with officials and reviews these things every day. And that is a desirable way to do it – what we’re doing now is changing the person that is in that position and makes those decisions rather than changing the rules. It’s about how you do the role, not putting additional rules in place.”

Poppy Trowbridge said the most important aspect of being Speaker “is how you do the role”. She said that in spite of the mess of the past few years and the tension, “the system is still working, and the speaker is a big part of that.”

INDY REF II? 

Mr Kentish predicted that if Jeremy Corbyn ends up leading a coalition government then another independence vote would be on the table. 

“I do anticipate that there will be a second Scottish independence referendum - any sort of deal with the SNP would rely on Labour committing to that. If the Tories win the pressure for a second referendum will go through the roof.”

NEW INTAKE UP FOR THE TASK? 

“It’s crucial for the next government to attempt to demonstrate some stability. Stability and experience are two different things – it’s worth remembering that the civil service essentially runs the show for any new government so there is a continuity there. Boris’ team, although quite young, are very connected to the older, more senior members of the party.” - Poppy Trowbridge.

RETURN OF THE AGRICULTURAL AND ENVIRONMENT BILL?

“Depending on the outcome of this election we’re going to have to have bills of this nature because we have to be able to now set our policy in these areas. There is a risk that we end up formulating our domestic policies in a ping pong against the trade deals we’re trying to do regarding Brexit, rather than making them in a more traditional way.” - Hannah White.  

“Focus on the environment is rising as an issue consistently over time.” - James Morris.

“The environment is now more of an issue to voters than it has been any time since 1990.” - Ben Kentish.


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