Taking the opportunity of thinking ahead to what might happen in the coming year provides a useful opportunity to double check your public affairs strategy. In a period dominated by the discussions over Brexit, it is also critical for business planning.
So what are the 10 big questions for 2018…
- Will there be a General Election? In all likelihood, no. The recent European deal looks to have settled Mrs May’s position at least in the short-term – she has assuaged the doubts of the Brexiteers by confirming the UK will leave the Customs Union and the Single Market, but convinced them to swallow paying a hefty divorce bill. There is plenty yet to agree in Phases 2 and 3, but she, and her Brexit negotiating team, will be given some time to try to define and deliver the new ‘deep and special’ trading partnership. Critically, Parliament will now have to pass the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill, approving any deal – that could happen towards the end of 2018, or early 2019. A defeat in Parliament would see the end of a May-led government but not necessarily lead to an immediate General Election – the DUP’s view of the (yet to be agreed) solution to the Irish border may be decisive.
- Will Jeremy Corbyn still be leader of the Labour Party? Yes. There are no serious challengers and somehow the slightly opaque Brexit vision being delivered seems to confuse people so much that everyone can agree with it.
- Can we all stop talking about Brexit? Of course not! It will continue to dominate politics. Domestically, the EU(W)Bill has already been the subject of one significant Government defeat and another, on having an actual date for leaving the EU in the Bill, looks a distinct prospect. And, of course, we should not forget that the Lords hasn’t even had its chance to scrutinise the Bill yet. However, whilst further changes are possible, the Bill will be passed. Political focus will likely turn to the nature of the UK’s long-term future relationship with the EU, and issues like customs arrangements, regulatory equivalence and ‘passporting’. Which brings us on to ….
- Who could have the bloodier civil war, Labour or Conservatives? The Conservatives. The more hard-line proponents of Brexit will become particularly agitated if they will that the agenda (and the Government’s policy on the future UK/EU relationship) is moving away from them. Just look at the reaction to defeat over the ‘meaningful vote’. The blame game has only just started. A divide could also open up between local Conservatives associations and between the local associations of the ‘mutineers’ and the party centrally. The local associations may choose to defend their MPs rather than deselect them. For Labour, the real internal punch-up will happen the closer a General Election seems. Then serving MPs, especially moderate ones, will face the prospect of deselection. The party then has decisions to make about whether to defend those MPs or not. So 2019 looks more likely for Labour’s battles.
- Will the UK still exist? On balance, yes, but the prospects for 2019 look less secure. If it becomes clear that no-one can come up with a ‘creative’ or ‘innovative’ solution to the issue of the Irish border then Scotland and London may make a break for economic freedom within the EU Single Market.
- What will the major story of 2018 be? Frankly, we have no idea. The big issues often come out of left-field and have little grounding in what has gone on before. Although sleaze and resignations often loom large in politics…
- How many Ministers will be forced to resign? We are probably talking low numbers but the more interesting issue is when Mrs May will feel ready to have a Cabinet reshuffle and who will be the winners and losers? Our bets are Boris to leave to the Foreign Office and be unhappy with the position he is then offered. Hunt will finally leave Health, Grayling will lose Transport and Javid will be shifted from CLG. Expect more faces from the 2015 intake to rise up the ranks and do not rule out a Liam Fox style return to frontline politics for Priti Patel after a suitable period in political purgatory. Why? Mrs May will still need to show she is committed to a properly robust vision of Brexit.
- What will Labour talk about in 2018? Labour will want to continue to pressurise the Government on Brexit but will widen the discussions to demonstrate that it is a serious government-in-waiting. So expect more outreach from John McDonnell to the business community, the publication of draft Bills and position papers but fundamentally ‘it’s (still) the economy, stupid’ especially if we are in a period of stagflation (albeit with lower unemployment). Labour needs to continue to strengthen its credentials and the big worry for the Conservatives has to be that the political centre of gravity shifts to the left because of the continued economic position and the disquiet over Brexit – a ‘what sort of country will the UK be post-Brexit?’ narrative. So Labour, instead of having to the shift to the centre to look credible, has the political spectrum shift to it instead. Regardless of who moves, Labour improves its electoral prospects.
- What about the other parties? It is difficult seeing the Lib Dems being able to make much of an immediate national breakthrough. Instead, they will focus locally to build themselves back up whilst targeting by-elections (of which there are bound to be several) to gain profile and national media attention. Sadly for many, the profile of Nigel Farage is unlikely to diminish even if his former party, UKIP, are a total irrelevance.
- What about the new Mayors? They are likely to continue to raise their profile nationally in efforts to get more out of central government in terms of Brexit but also more powers through devolution as well. Whilst former Minister, Andy Burnham, may be making all the noise in Manchester, the ones to watch are Andy Street and James Palmer – the Conservative mayors of the West Midlands, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.