Choppy waters ahead, Prime Minister

In the first of two blogs looking at the issues the main parties will face in the year ahead, DRD Associate and former parliamentary adviser, Samantha Beggs outlines the challenges for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party in 2021.

When the Prime Minister stormed to victory in December 2019 with a new intake of loyal Brexiteers and an 80-seat majority, his greatest challenge was delivering a good deal and “getting Brexit done” (as he often liked to tell us). Then, he’d turn his attentions to addressing geographical inequality with big infrastructure projects and a new Skills Fund as part of his levelling up programme – a thank you if you will to the new ‘blue wall’ communities. Big plans and high hopes…but along came Covid-19 and changed everything.

2020 became the year of lockdowns, u-turns, toilet roll shortages and unsubstantiated substantial meals with your pub pint. The Prime Minister did manage to get a Brexit deal and the transition period (where we followed EU rules as if we were a member) officially ended at 11pm on 31 December.

Brexit, which dominated the political agenda for years, was done. But there was no fanfare, no street parties, no celebration, no mourning, no protesting…instead we just slipped away from our European partners, quietly. Our dreary departure perfectly capturing the mood of 2020.

A look ahead

The Prime Minister kicked off 2021 with a hopeful piece in the Telegraph. Perhaps his closing paragraph sums it up best: “In the distance and through the darkness we can see the brightly illuminated pub sign of our destination…we are not there yet, but we are not far off; and most importantly, we can see with ever-growing clarity how we are going to get there.”

Less than four days later, Johnson’s hopeful message had turned into a reconciliation that another nationwide lockdown was the only way to contain the new variants of the virus.

Alas, the UK is back in lockdown. Although we’ve been told it’ll be reviewed in mid-February, the regulations for England, published earlier this week, don’t actually expire until March 31 (and there’s talk of them dragging into April). During his press conference on Monday, the Prime Minister told the nation that “if things go well”, the aim is to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups by the time of the review – that’s about 13 million.

So far, only 1.3 million have received the first dose so it’s no wonder the PM was keen to emphasise the ‘if’. Though even with that caveated caution, if things don’t go well, the Government will be accused of missing its own target (again). Overpromising and underdelivering? Clearly, lessons from 2020 have yet to be learned.  

With two vaccines being rolled out across the UK, the Prime Minister does have some justification for optimism. Though even if, in a stroke of genius, we hit our vaccine targets and the current lockdown gets the R rate back down below one (and importantly, keeps it there) – even if we get on top of the virus and Covid-19 no longer dictates who we can see and where we can go – its legacy will haunt the PM for months, and years ahead.

There will almost certainly be a public inquiry into how the Government handled the pandemic. Did the PM ignore advice, did he act too late, was the messaging confused, did lockdowns do more damage than good? A return to some sort of normal might signal an ‘end’ for the rest of us, but it will only be the beginning for the PM.

Can the Government really get away from Covid-19?

Without doubt, the pandemic (and the economic impact) is likely to dominate the Government agenda in 2021 but the party will soon have to start prioritising some of its manifesto commitments.

The four key areas are strengthening the NHS, investing in schools, a strong economy and safer streets. Arguably, each of these (in particular, the first three) have become even more important as a result of Covid-19 but the primary focus is likely to be the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

At the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives were ahead of Labour by 12% in the polls – now they’re ahead by just 2%. Johnson’s fall in popularity isn’t just reflected in the polls though. Discontent in his own party was on the rise last year with the emergence of six different Research Groups, and the growing divergence between the ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ in his own Cabinet.

Whilst his 80-seat majority isn’t really in any jeopardy, his own position just might be. Last year, there were rumours (thanks to former Chief Aide, Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law) that the PM planned to resign in ‘six months’ owing to lingering health problems post-Covid. Of course, Downing Street was quick to bat away any suggestion of ill health or resignation.

There’s no doubt the PM’s had it tough but even if that was nothing more than rumour, Johnson’s fate may already be sealed – if a public inquiry finds that the Government got its handling of Covid-19 badly wrong, responsibility will lie firmly with the leader. Knives will be out and Johnson really won’t have any option but to fall on his sword.

That said, a public inquiry is still some way off. In the short-term at least, Johnson needs to turn his attentions to getting his colleagues, and the nation back on side. In particular, he still owes an outstanding debt of gratitude to the former Labour voters who put their faith in him and turned the “red wall” blue at the last election.

Time for a reset?

Although neither Covid-19 nor Brexit will disappear in 2021, expect to hear a lot more about the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling geographical disparity and improving social mobility. And he’s being put to the test early when it comes to education.

The Government had hoped that January would be a “skills month” led by No.10, as part of the Government’s plans to reset its domestic policy agenda but the decision to shut schools and return to remote learning scuppered that. Incidentally, the long awaited and much delayed FE White Paper, which seeks to “level up both skills and opportunities” has also fallen victim to the latest virus strain.

Shutting schools wasn’t an easy decision to make – the Government is all too aware of the enormous educational inequality remote learning creates. Ofcom estimates that between 1.14m and 1.78m children in total in the UK have no home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet – thousands more only have access to a parent’s mobile phone. This is one area that the Government is going to be forced to step up to address, in very short order.

While Covid dominates the headlines now, if the Prime Minister’s optimism for 2021 is well-founded then it won’t forever. The Government isn’t in for smooth sailing this year and its to do list is growing. It may yet need more than a shot in the arm to pull through.

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