As we return to the (virtual) office, BCW London’s Corporate and Public Affairs team has put together its top predictions for the battleground issues that will dominate 2022. With the situation in the polls fluid, and a cost of living crisis looming, it looks like there isn't going to be a dull moment in the next 360 days!
The biggest political story of 2022 will be how, and if, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson can survive the most severe political test he has ever faced and confound the critics once more by winning back the doubters.
His landslide victory in the 2019 general election seemed to point to a decade of Johnson rule. This appears a lifetime ago as the murmurings of Conservative backbench MPs who want to replace him begin.
Johnson is a proven winner at the ballot box, but the Conservative Party will need to decide whether he continues to be an electoral asset or if his star power has diminished beyond return. The Prime Minister faces a daunting task.
Johnson will hope that his refusal to impose new COVID restrictions in England beginning in early 2022 - as the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales decided to do - is looking like the right call. This could allow him to re-establish some degree of political superiority over Labour, but it does require a period of calm government in which basic priorities are properly addressed. Policies to control inflation and protect living standards are becoming increasingly urgent.
Johnson has bounced back before - can he do it again?
CONSERVATIVE LEADERSHIP CONTEST?
2022 will be the year of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak vs. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. The front runners for the Tory top job, should Johnson continue to falter, both come with risk. Sunak has achieved a level of public profile (and public spending) rare for any politician other than Johnson himself, but his willingness to splash the cash creates suspicion on the Party’s backbenches. Inversely, Truss’ new role overseeing Brexit could cement her as the darling of the grassroots and Parliamentary Party but alienate her from the public.
With Labour demonstrating that it can challenge for a lead in the polls, it will all come down to electability - the trait the Conservatives prize above all others - vs. ideological purity.
The intensity of this rivalry will determine much, but a lot will depend on how the Prime Minister looks to recover his own position. How both run their internal political campaigns will also impact their relationship with Johnson while he remains in office, with one clear implication being that the relationship between Treasury and Number 10 could break down just as the country faces soaring energy costs, inflation and tax increases.
As previous leadership races have also shown, a third choice is likely to emerge – such as former candidate Jeremy Hunt – should the Prime Minister continue to falter.
Make no mistake, the fast-approaching cost-of-living crisis is dominating minds in No.10, and much of Boris Johnson’s year will be determined by how he handles it. It will be the difference between success and failure for the Prime Minister.
He has ruled out cutting VAT on energy bills – a high profile Brexit promise – but expect a package of measures very soon designed to alleviate the impact of a likely £500-a-year hike in the energy price cap on hard-up families.
On top of the eye-watering increases in energy, rail fares are due to rise by 3.8 percent in March and the new NHS Health and Social Care Tax kicks-in soon after. The increases will hammer many of those who voted Conservative for the first time at the last election and are likely to once again drive a wedge between the Cabinet and the Northern Conservative MPs who won their seats in that election.
All three areas – energy, rail and the health service – have suffered from short-term policy making for much of the past decade and sorely need fundamental reform. Johnson will have to try and show he has the ideas to put longer-term measures in place.
“Global Britain,” a term and idea which can mean anything to anyone, was very much in display once more as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss gave her first major speech in December, setting out her own views, defined by a “Network of Liberty” of “ideas, influence and inspiration.”
2022 will be a major test of whether this ambition can be turned into reality. A trade deal with India, for which the Trade Secretary is heading to Delhi later this month to discuss, and the long-pursued ambitions of a free trade deal with the U.S., are likely to be some of the leading goals for 2022 as the Government seeks to demonstrate tangible success. Neither will come without challenges, with Home Secretary Priti Patel and Truss already at loggerheads over potential immigration concessions.
Another major test of British authority approaches as Russian troops continue to linger at Ukraine’s border. The UK, U.S. and Brussels have all already gone to great lengths to ward off Putin (not least with images of Truss riding tanks in Latvia) – how this plays out will be telling of Global Britain’s strategies for the coming year.
While Brexit may not be top of the political agenda, it will determine the fortunes of both the Conservatives and Labour.
For the Conservatives, the Party unity over Brexit seen at the 2019 general election is beginning to disappear – not least with the resignation of Lord Frost as Chief Brexit Negotiator. The key for Johnson now is what this departure means for the Northern Ireland Protocol and whether ardent Brexiteers lose patience with No.10 for failing to deliver ‘wins’ from Britain’s independence from Brussels beyond the vaccine program. Look for the Government to make noises around agricultural reform, government procurement and trade.
For Labour, Brexit represents an opportunity to capitalize on the recent lead in the polls. Starmer and his cabinet, comprised of former Second Referendum campaigners, will have to convince voters in former northern Labour-voting seats that Labour has a vision for Britain’s future outside of the EU.
“Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them” goes the old saying. But Labour leader Keir Starmer is leaving nothing to chance. Before Christmas he reshuffled his Cabinet to put in place the team he wants to take to the next election. And now, just as the country returns to work following the holidays, he has opened the political year with a major speech outlining the tone and the themes for his year ahead.
Once again, Starmer - the patriot - sees the country’s best years as ahead of it. He set out his contract with the British people, offering Security, Responsibility, and Respect. He praised Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and – most controversially – Tony Blair, because they were winners.
The Labour Party still has an electoral mountain to climb simply to be competitive, and Keir Starmer needs some memorable polices to show how he would fulfil his promises to reform the NHS and to reindustrialize the UK. The speed of Labour’s return to “politics as usual” shows they are hungry for power.