A 2020 political snapshot

6 January 2020

After one of the most turbulent years in modern British politics, it’s a safe bet that 2020 will not be quite so dramatic politically. Nevertheless, the consequences of some of the decisions taken in 2019 are likely to have a profound impact, leaving the country in a very different shape by the end of this year than it was at the start. Three issues are likely to dominate.

Boris went to the country in December pledging to “Get Brexit Done” and sure enough we will be technically leaving the European Union on 31 January 2020, ten months later than originally envisaged. However, his campaign slogan should more properly have been “Get Brexit Started” as the wranglings with the EU will have only just begun in February, and the focus for the remainder of the year will switch to the trade deal. Downing Street remains optimistic that a comprehensive ‘Canada style’ free trade agreement with zero tariffs on most goods (but customs checks) can be negotiated by the end of this year. To stiffen resolve, the PM proposes to make it illegal for the UK to request an extension to this timetable. Most observers – and not just in Brussels – believe this is unrealistic at best, pure fantasy at worst. Theresa May’s former EU Special Adviser Raoul Ruparel argues that a deal can be done in that timescale, but it will be “narrow and shallow” rather than “broad and deep” as Downing Street contends, and foresees years of further negotiations ahead of any comprehensive agreement being agreed. The political and economic fallout of failing to agree a deal by the end of next year may well cause significant electoral damage in 2021 and beyond – a question of winning the election battle but losing the war?

The Prime Minister, however, will also want to re-focus away from Brexit and back onto the domestic agenda that has been so neglected these past three years. He is cognisant, above all, that he owes his election victory to the crumbling of the “Red Wall” of Labour seats in the North, Midlands and North Wales that fell to the Conservatives. If he wants to stay in power for the next decade he not only needs to “Get Brexit Done” but also needs to cement these voters into his own new “Blue Wall.” In many ways that means becoming “Red Conservatives” by aping traditional Labour policies such as ending austerity and splurging on public services like the NHS, education and police recruitment. However, this is dependent not only on a smooth Brexit that keeps the economy strong and stable, but also managing internal tensions within the Conservative Party amongst more laissez-faire minded colleagues who are resistant to statist interventions. Amidst it all is his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, a Svengali figure who has now masterminded two electoral triumphs but who’s disruptive tendencies across the whole gamut of public policy send shivers down the spines of many loyal Conservatives.

But at least these are problems of success. Labour has to grapple with the potentially existential threat of its own electoral demise. The 2019 General Election was a devastating defeat whichever way you look at it: in sheer numbers of MPs returned and share of the national vote, the worst since 1935 – but at that Election Labour, with an enterprising new leader called Clement Attlee, actually gained more than 100 seats on a 7% swing from the Conservatives. The better analogy is 1931, when the party under left-wing leadership came close to total oblivion, requiring fourteen more years (and a world war) to regain power. The party today is as divided as it was back then between those who seek continuity through “Corbynism without Corbyn,” arguing that the party “won the argument,” and the more pragmatically-minded who are willing to compromise with the electorate and develop a package of proposals that are both credible and popular as a whole. As former deputy leader Tom Watson has said Labour can only win again when Labour wants to win again, but as things stand it remains unclear whether this is a pressing objective for the party. The result of the forthcoming Leadership election will be telling here.

Of course, this is only a snapshot of some of the key issues we are likely to see during 2020. Inevitably, there will be many, many more – not least further drives to the break-up of the Union itself on the back of a stunning General Election result for the SNP at the expense of both Labour and the Conservatives north of the border (although, this may not reach its zenith until after the 2021 Holyrood Elections). But rest assured that a newly reformatted Weekly DRD Snapshot starting next Monday will keep you all fully informed of political developments in Westminster and beyond.

Pete Bowyer is a Partner at DRD Partnership in London, UK.

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