When Boris Johnson unveiled his 2019 election manifesto, complete with pledges to spend more on recruiting doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers, whilst simultaneously cutting income and corporation tax, some questioned whether it would be possible to balance this ‘spend and reduce tax’ equation.
Just months later, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed public spending to record highs and put the brakes on many of the plans that had previously topped Johnson’s domestic policy agenda as resources were diverted to tackling the immediate crisis.
Now, with lockdown measures lifting after a successful vaccine rollout and pressure on the health service brought largely under control, Johnson is determined to return to delivery of his wider agenda as the country heads into autumn and political attentions turn to the next General Election.
With an ambitious list of more than 30 pieces of legislation set out at the Queen’s Speech in May, the coming months will be a critical time for Johnson to return to his priorities and bring his agenda back on track. However, significant challenges remain on the road ahead.
One of the Government’s top priorities this Autumn will be passing its spending review (SR), providing much-needed certainty for public services delivery.
Owing to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, Chancellor Rishi Sunak opted for a single-year spending review at the end of last year. This has undoubtedly made it difficult for many areas of public services to effectively plan and calls for a longer-term 3-year financial settlement will be met when the review is presented alongside the Autumn Budget in late October.
The SR will prove a major test for the Government, with the process already marred by speculation that cutbacks will be far-reaching, and that government departments will be asked to make significant cost reductions.
A particular tension comes as schools have warned they will be forced to cut budgets in the aftermath of a touted 5% cut to the Department for Education’s overall spending in the forthcoming SR. Other cuts could hit the construction industry, with West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin warning this month that a reduction to infrastructure funding would ‘devastate’ the Yorkshire region.
For Sunak himself, the SR presents both risks and opportunities as he attempts to strike the delicate balance between his stated long-term goal of repairing public finances and continuing to deal with the immediate impacts of the pandemic.
Further to the Government’s announcement of its controversial health and social care levy –
designed to inject funds into the ailing adult social care system and help the NHS deal with severe backlogs – the Government’s Health and Care Bill continues its passage through Parliament.
The Health and Social Care Bill, introduced to Parliament earlier this month, will see employers and employees pay an extra 1.25p in the pound for National Insurance from April next year before the levy is collected as a new tax from April 2023, including from pensioners. Critics argue that the new levy will have a disproportionate impact on the lower-paid, and that it breaks the government’s promise not to raise National Insurance. While Johnson insists the measure is necessary in light of the pandemic, we can expect to see fractious debate in the Commons and Lords.
The Health and Care Bill offers an opportunity to improve outcomes for patients and adults reliant on social care, by streamlining services and encouraging greater collaboration. Reforming social care has been a key priority for Johnson – who will be acutely aware that failing to provide a more effective, affordable and joined-up service following multiple commitments from previous Tory Prime Ministers could push millions to withdraw their support for the Conservatives at the next election.
Indeed, the pandemic has further highlighted the vulnerability of the social care system, pushing the issue higher up the political agenda. Given his recent appointment as Health Secretary, Sajid Javid will be keen to successfully shepherd the Health and Care Bill through Parliament without major incident.
The Government is widely expected to unveil legislation designed to reform the planning system this Autumn; a move which will make strides towards delivering the Government’s target of building 300,000 new homes each year by the mid-2020s.
However, Johnson faces a deep rift in his own party – with Conservative backbenchers vehemently opposed to the changes which would loosen planning restrictions, and put younger voters at the sharp end of the housing crisis as the Government pushes to meet its housing targets.
Reports in The Times in September 2021 suggested that the Planning Bill, a centrepiece of the 2021 Queen’s Speech, could be dramatically watered down to ensure a smoother passage and minimise the risk of large-scale opposition. However, as a hallmark issue for governments past, present and future, it’s unlikely to be the last we hear on the Planning Bill.
The build-up to COP26 has been more than two-years in the making as the UK has sought to use the hosting of the international climate change summit as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on the environment, and to re-build relationships with international partners.
In the final few weeks before the event kicks off in Glasgow, we have seen domestic airwaves dominated by concerns about energy security and cost of supply. The situation is complex, and unsurprisingly some climate change sceptics have sought to use it as an opportunity to attack the Government’s ambitions for net zero. However, there is broad agreement that the UK must reduce its reliance on fossil fuel imports.
The Government will seek to diplomatically underline this position in the coming weeks while keeping the agenda with international partners on track, but one major question remains – what will the Government have to show from the last UN conference? Hopes of progress so significant as to capture the attention of people outside of a relatively small bubble sadly look unlikely at this stage, but not impossible.
Elsewhere, the long-awaited Online Safety Bill is currently making its way through pre-legislative scrutiny in the House of Commons. Yet another contentious piece of legislation being introduced in this parliamentary session, government has taken steps to ensure cross-party scrutiny at this early stage helps identify any emerging issues, with amendments from both the Conservative and Labour benches already rumoured to be in the works.
Whilst not as far-reaching as the Planning or Health and Care Bills, this piece of legislation will add to the legislative burden facing the Government in 2022 and MPs, businesses and journalists alike are likely to have a view on the measures it includes.
This month’s reshuffle is a stark reminder that fresh faces and a fresh approach is needed before Johnson can face the polls.
The timely shake-up, and the representative cohort Johnson’s sought to establish, provides a chance for the Government to create a change of pace and introduce fresh thinking to departments that have been in crisis-mode over the past 18 months.
Whilst the ongoing battle against COVID-19 still provides some uncertainty, the Government now has a window in which to push ahead with policy and legislation to realise the ambitious priorities it set out in 2019. With only two years left, the pressure is on for Johnson and his team to deliver.