The UK’s new Age of Uncertainty
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Britain’s politics, its economy, its constitution and arguably its social fabric are under stress.
Last week’s no confidence ballot amongst Conservative Members of Parliament showed that the Prime Minister has lost the confidence of more than 40% of his parliamentary colleagues, who fear that revelations about parties in Downing Street during Covid lockdowns have turned him into an electoral liability. Boris Johnson survives for now thanks largely to the continuing support of Cabinet ministers rewarded in many cases for political loyalty rather than obvious talent or achievement. But he has lost the support of backbenchers from all wings of the party, whose mutually contradictory demands he will now try desperately to appease in order to stay in power.
The two by-elections later this month that the Conservatives are expected to lose will likely add to Mr Johnson’s difficulties, and he may yet face a further challenge over the coming months. The fact that those by-elections are being held following, in one case, the imprisonment of the incumbent for the sexual assault of a minor and, in the other, the resignation of the sitting MP after he was seen watching pornography on his telephone in the House of Commons, only adds to the impression of a Conservative Party not only in disarray but degraded.
Meanwhile Mr Johnson’s character and one or two of his actions since becoming Prime Minister have led some observers to worry about the resilience of the UK’s unwritten constitution, which relies essentially on political leaders and particularly the Prime Minister following convention and having the moral quality to ‘do the right thing’. There are also concerns about Mr Johnson’s approach to policy, with his single big idea of ‘levelling up’ the country lacking substance, and many initiatives – the export of refugees to Rwanda, the proposed sale of more social housing, the planned reduction of the Civil Service at a time when public services are under severe strain and Brexit has brought new responsibilities, and the apparent willingness to risk a trade war with the EU by reneging on the Northern Ireland Protocol (the element of the Brexit agreement that regulates trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK) – seeming bereft of rigorous design, and intended to win easy headlines and shore up core Conservative support rather than address seriously the country’s problems.
And problems there undoubtedly are. Many are not unique to the UK: the economic impact of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the retreat from globalisation has of course been widespread. But the effects in the UK have been particularly severe. The IMF predicts that the UK will have the slowest rate of growth amongst G7 countries next year, with only Russia’s lower amongst G20 countries. Inflation is already higher than in any other G7 country, a situation predicted to continue through 2024, and the UK remains a laggard in terms of productivity. In the last quarter of 2021 Britain exported 16% less than in the last quarter of 2019, while global goods trade has grown by 6% over the same period.
The unique factor affecting the UK is Brexit. The Government’s own financial watchdog, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, predicts that UK international trade will continue to be 15% less than if the country had remained in the EU, and that as a result of Brexit the UK economy will in the long term be 4% smaller than it would have been. That will exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis already hitting the British public, particularly those on lower and average incomes.
Internationally, Brexit has left the UK confused about its role. Although the country’s interests are geographically wide, in terms of trade and investment, political and personal relationships, migration and security, the war in Ukraine is a reminder that Europe will always remain at their centre. Extravagant rhetoric about ‘Global Britain’ is no substitute for making the hard strategic choices the UK confronts.
Domestically, Brexit and the fiscal austerity pursued by the Cameron Governments of 2010-16 have left serious cleavages – between north and south (support for Brexit was for some an expression of resentment against the London and southern ‘elite’ perceived to be the beneficiaries of EU membership); between relatively flourishing larger cities and smaller ‘forgotten’ towns; and to an extent between generations (housing wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated amongst the elderly who predominantly vote Conservative, while younger people increasingly find themselves unable to buy a property and struggling with rising rents). According to surveys, six years after the Brexit referendum more people define themselves politically as ‘remainers’ or ‘leavers’ than as supporters of a political party.
Yet despite the accumulating evidence of a floundering Government and national crisis there is little sense, as there was in the late 70s when Margaret Thatcher was reshaping the Conservative Party or the mid-90s when Tony Blair was doing the same with Labour, that an energised Opposition with a charismatic leader and exciting new ideas is ready to take over. The 2019 election was undoubtedly a profound shock to the Labour Party; under its then leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose gestural socialist politics had changed little since the 1970s, Labour lost many of its traditional parliamentary seats in northern England. Mr Corbyn’s successor, the former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer, has successfully brought the Labour Party back into the political mainstream. But while he is widely respected for his competence, he has yet to communicate the political creativity, vision and persuasive new policy ideas that might convincingly persuade the British public that he is the Prime Minister for whom the UK has been waiting.
Against this background the prospects for the election that either Boris Johnson, if he survives, or a new Conservative Prime Minister must call before December 2024 remain cloudy. An absolute Labour majority looks unlikely. If Labour nevertheless emerges as the largest party, it will most likely have to govern with the support of the Liberal Democrats, who have a better chance of attracting votes in many seats currently held by the Conservatives. Labour might also need the support of the Scottish Nationalists to get legislation through the House of Commons, with possible implications for the likelihood of another referendum on Scottish independence during the next parliament.
The Scottish Nationalists and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, both with competent leadership, a strong sense of identity and purpose and clear objectives and strategy, are the only political parties clearly benefiting from the UK’s current malaise. The former are in government in Scotland and have the great majority of the 59 Scottish seats in the UK Parliament. Sinn Fein emerged from last month’s regional election as, for the first time, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Brexit has boosted support for both parties and though neither Scottish independence nor, particularly, a united Ireland seem an immediate prospect, many are beginning to acknowledge that both may well happen in the medium or longer term.
In the midst of these developments the recent Jubilee to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne offered a temporary focus for national and social unity, but it also served as a reminder that, with a monarch now in her 97th year, an era is drawing to a close. For many it is difficult to see through current political uncertainty, economic distress and national division towards an optimistic vision of the future.