What to expect when UK politics comes out of its Covid-19 'hibernation'
Politics has been seriously strange for the last 9 months, what with a minority-led Boris Johnson government, when parliament was hyperactive (but still utterly ineffectual on Brexit). Then Johnson’s puncturing of the ‘red wall’ in the general election, winning a Conservative majority that was the largest since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 triumph, and Labour being reduced to its lowest representation in the House of Commons since 1935.
The Tories strutted the stage. Labour went into hibernation (aka a long leadership election). Scotland’s government was, politely, told ‘no’ to requests for a second independence referendum. The new chancellor, the capable Rishi Sunak, banged out what looked like a big (New Tory) budget in the first half of last month.
Then Covid-19 hit the nation.
The Conservative government has since taken some of the most radical measures since Second World War. So far, this has met with high voter-approval ratings. But the science can only take us so far; and scientists, currently, appear to know little more than the rest of us do about this new virus.
We have two counter-factuals: Japan and Sweden, who have cleaved to Johnson’s original instincts of liberal personal freedom and common-sense (good instincts in most circumstances).
Japan has since announced emergency measures. Sweden is rapidly reconsidering.
Meantime, we have a prime minister in convalescence from a nasty brush with the virus at Chequers, which, from my relatively limited personal experience of being there, is probably the best place you would choose to convalesce. The service has all the excellent care you would expect from the NHS and all the brilliant efficiency you would expect from our armed forces. Let us hope it is not too long: the nation needs Johnson’s sunny optimism almost as much as it admired the wise and humane words from Our Queen.
And we have a new Labour leader, the ruggedly handsome (asset No. 1) Keir Starmer; who in the words of the leadership of the Jewish community last week, has done more “in four days to cure Labour of the stain of anti-semitism than his predecessor managed in four years” (asset No. 2). He is also possessed of common sense and a very good tactical mind – just look at the careful composition of his shadow cabinet (asset No. 3). He is also likely to prove a much better parliamentary performer than the prime minister (asset No. 4).
That said, discount asset No. 4 a bit: William Hague was much better at the dispatch box from 1997 than the-then relatively inexperienced Tony Blair. But it moved the electoral dial in the 2001 election barely a jot. Political nuts like me so enjoy the theatre that we forget that it passes most of the country by.
Assets 1-3 are real and give Starmer a strong base to start from to rebuild Labour as an electoral force. But, as he himself acknowledges, he and his party still “have a mountain to climb”. His disadvantages are at least threefold as he begins this multi-year ascent with the next Westminster ballot unlikely till 2023 or 2024:
- The first 100 days of any leadership are an (essential but ill-defined) guide to the leader. Starmer has to do that in what is almost a vacuum while the country remains in hibernation from the virus (though he is trying hard).
- His predecessor had no interest in governing the country, but a fanatical interest in controlling the internal machinations of his party. As a result, there is a large number of Labour officers at local, regional and national level who will be a well-placed source of dissent to anything Starmer proposes to improve the party’s electoral position through a more moderate course than Jeremy Corbyn.
- Those same people will do all in their power to frustrate Starmer’s attempt to reposition the Labour Party to be more electorally-friendly. He has to do a Stalin-like ‘march through the machine’, while preserving his decent and liberal/ moral socialist instincts.
Yet, he will have some potential open goals in coming weeks:
- The government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic (think personal protective equipment, testing, care home treatment etc) has seen the United Kingdom, like several other G20 governments, well ‘behind the curve’ and only just catching up.
- Implementation of the ‘big bazooka’ economic measures that the Chancellor has announced will not proceed in their implementation as smoothly as the government hopes.
- The economy: the Office for Budget Responsibility on Tuesday announced a forecast, which the chancellor did not deny, of a -35% dip in the economy in Q2 (which is likely) and a 13% year-on-year drop even if the government’s measures work. Recessions tend to ultimately get blamed on incumbent governments, even if they are not their fault.
In short, when we come stumbling like bears from our enforced hibernation, it will be back to: ‘politics: game on!’
Dominic joined Quiller in 2015 from Lloyds Banking Group where he was Group Public Affairs Director. He is a former chief of staff at Ofcom, spent eight years in the Prime Minister’s Office, under Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major and was an expert adviser on Digital Britain to Lords’ Mandelson and Carter in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Dominic has extensive experience in regulatory affairs at a national and international level, across financial services, telecommunications and media.