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Boris wins - the new balance of power and how it will be used

Words by:
December 13, 2019

The Conservatives are on track for a majority of a little under 80 seats. WA provides below a comprehensive overview of how power is balanced in the new government and what you can expect it to do in the next few days, weeks and months. If you would like to arrange a discussion with WA’s senior consultants to unpack the results and what it means for your organisation, please get in touch.

 

Priorities and commitments

The gamble has paid off and Boris Johnson has taken back control of Parliament with a mandate to ‘Get Brexit done and unleash Britain’s potential’.  The eyes of the country will now turn to delivery.

Achieving the first half of the election mantra is dependent on the Government clearing the Withdrawal Bill through Parliament so that attention can shift to agreeing the size and shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.  With a big majority of Conservative MPs who have all publicly pledged to back the Prime Minister’s deal, Johnson can be confident in clearing the House of Commons.  Moreover, while the Conservatives do not hold a majority in the Lords, it would a monumental blow for the Salisbury-Addison Convention if peers were to vote down an unequivocal manifesto pledge of this order that has been passed by MPs.

Securing agreement on what our new relationship with the EU looks like is an altogether harder problem to solve, but solved it must be to truly Get Brexit Done.  There are three scenarios for what Done looks like by the end 2020:

  • A comprehensive trade and investment deal covering goods and services that avoids tariff and non-tariff barriers from emerging between the UK and the EU
  • A ‘foundation’ deal covering elements of a comprehensive deal to varying degrees that is then built upon from the beginning of 2021
  • No deal.

To achieve the first scenario, negotiators are going to have to move like lightening to agree the broad parameters of what the new relationship should be before meticulously weaving together selected threads of the 40-year-old relationship that has just been unpicked.  Along the way, the UK Government and European Commission will have to consult with the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the European Parliament, and the European Council.

Ultimately all these institutions will have to endorse, formally or informally, the final design. However, as the last three years has proven, carrying this number of interests along is not without its perils.  Particularly careful consideration will be given to how to engage with the SNP, who are currently on track to win 48 of the 59 seats up for grabs – up from 35 in 2017 – and their second best electoral result.

A foundation’ deal would be unprecedented.  Precedents are there to be broken, but any deal agreed by the UK and the EU will also need the seal of approval from the World Trade Organisation because it would be a new Regional Trade Agreement and therefore a departure from the principle of non-discrimination.  To secure approval the new deal must, in the words of the WTO, ‘cover substantially all trade’.  This means that a ‘foundation’ deal cannot be too much of a fudge and No Deal is not yet off the table.  That being said, the measure of Johnson’s victory could give him room for manoeuvre on extending the timeline he himself imposed to agree a new deal.

With the scale of the task on Brexit fully understood by Johnson and his team, it is hardly surprising that the scope of the Conservative’s wider manifesto was therefore somewhat more muted. The specific detail behind headline commitments to ‘strengthen NHS and social care, invest in schools, cut crime, fix immigration, deliver housing, invest in skills, fight climate change and protect the environment…’ is, to a significant degree, yet to be worked out alongside the Brexit negotiations.

 

Governing stability

The Prime Minister may have asked for a majority this Christmas, but what he really, really wants is a multi-year parliament.  A parliament that he can depend on to allow him to turn his attention on to his post-Brexit legacy once he ‘Gets Brexit Done’.

The media are talking about a ‘thumping Tory victory’ and although this is far from the landslides of Thatcher in 1983 (144) or Labour in 1997 (179) or 2001 (167), it must be remembered that those were in the context of a Scottish picture not too far removed from the English electoral map.  In 1983, Thatcher took 21 seats in Scotland compared to the SNP’s two; while in 1997 and 2001, Blair took 56 seats compared to the SNP’s six and five respectively.

The situation today is very different with a wave of SNP sweeping away seven of Labour’s eight seats and more than halving the Conservative’s standing to six.  With such diametrically opposed politics north and south of the border, the future of the Union is expected to come under strain.

On the plus side, all those 360 plus Conservative MPs being sworn in over the next few days are now ‘Boris’ People’.  He can expect unrelenting loyalty from them, especially in the first 100 days of his new Government when there’s still a new term feel.

But he will need to hold on to his new clutch of Conservative MPs to whatever deal he secures.  Supporting the Withdrawal Bill is one thing, but actively supporting No Deal were this scenario to emerge is quite another.  It is not beyond the realms of possibility that fissures start to emerge within the party again.

A majority of 70-plus means that by-elections are far less of a risk than they could have been. In the four years since 2015 there have been 15 by-elections, with seats changing hands in three instances.  In the five years before, there were 21 by-elections with seats changing hands four times.  We can expect by-elections to be a normal feature of this parliament and while Johnson has most certainly pushed back the tide of a hung parliament, he will want to avoid a gentle erosion of his majority in order to give himself the best chance of moving on to crafting his legacy and building up to the next election.

 

Out with the old and in with the new

More than 30 Conservative MPs retired from the House in October and decided not to stand again.  While not all serving ministers, with around 10% of the parliamentary party gone, openings have been created.  The Prime Minister will use his powers of patronage to consolidate his position, surrounding himself with those who have proven themselves to be loyal and who will support him in building momentum behind his Government.

 

Scale of opposition and character of parliament

Labour have been decimated.  A central block of the Red-Wall – Blyth Valley – was one of the first seats to fall.  Labour since its creation in 1950, the seat saw around a 10-point swing and went from red to blue in the early hours of the morning.  One of the biggest gasps of the night was when Bassetlaw was declared with an 18% swing from Labour to the Conservatives. The Lib Dems are down to 11 MPs and lost their leader in the process. The opposition has been fractured and is fragmented with only the SNP buoyant.

 

24 MPs have been returned to the House of Commons from constituencies who have not voted Tory in decades.  Nine seats taken from Labour had been held by them since the Second World War.  The make-up of the Government benches is set to change as Conservative MPs from the midlands and the north take their seats.  As they do so, they will already be thinking of the next election and the need to show their constituents that they delivered for them.  We can expect to see these backbenchers working together to ensure Government funding and attention is given to these areas.

 

What happens next?

Between now and the New Year

Reshuffle

The first order of business is the formation of the new Cabinet over the next couple of days.  This is set to be a minor reshuffle, necessitated by the decision of Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan not to stand in the election, but a more significant reshuffle is being mooted for February.  Promotion to Cabinet for a rising talent such as Rishi Sunak could be on the cards.  Meanwhile the junior ministerial ranks may see a little more movement as younger talents are allowed to advance.

Queen’s Speech

The Queen’s Speech is set to take place next week, most likely on Thursday.  The Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be top of the list but it will also include Bills enabling: greater investment in education; additional NHS funding; gigabit broadband rollout; the introduction of a new ‘points-based’ immigration system; and future schemes for trade, agriculture, fishing and the environment once the UK leaves the EU.  All these Bills are expected to be not only announced but to start their parliamentary passage within the first 100 days of the Government (by Sunday 22nd March 2020).

The Bills on immigration, trade, agriculture, fishing and the environment are all linked to the types of trading relationships that the UK seeks to establish with international partners (including the EU) and will provide an early indication of the government’s negotiating priorities when published.

Withdrawal Agreement

The top policy priority remains Brexit.  The Prime Minister is expected to get the first reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) done before Christmas but to leave the remaining stages until the New Year.

January

Brexit next steps

Contrary to the Conservative campaign slogan, Brexit will still be far from ‘done’ once the WAB goes through.  The UK will leave the EU on 31 January, but the clock is already ticking towards the next big deadline; securing a new trading relationship by the end of 2020.  This is a mammoth task and the government will need to outline its approach as early as possible to stand a chance of avoiding the next no-deal cliff edge.  As such, expect a significant announcement on this by the end of January.

February – March

Easy wins

There are a series of non-legislative items slated for the first 100 days.  Some of these are ‘oven ready’ such as an agreement with mobile phone operators to improve rural connectivity.  Others are much more aspirational, such as a promise to open cross-party talks on social care, or will mark the start of longer processes, such as the launch of a strategic defence review.

Brexit Budget

A Brexit Budget is due before the end of March.  This will require the Chancellor to thread a careful path between meeting the bill for electoral promises of more funding for the NHS, education and police services with maintaining a semblance of fiscal discipline.  This is made more challenging by the manifesto pledge not to raise income tax, VAT or National Insurance and there will be pressure to find alternative revenue sources. Keep a close watch for new stealth taxes.

April onwards

Spending Review

This year will see a Spending Review, likely to be launched by the summer, setting the multi-year budgetary framework for all government departments.  This will pose another challenge for the Chancellor who needs to deliver the ‘end of austerity’.  The task: find a sustainable way of funding greater investment in public services – a shift that that is likely required if the Conservative Party is to maintain its hold on former Labour heartland seats in the north and midlands.

Climate change & Net Zero Carbon

Notable by its absence from the Conservative promises for the first 100 days, driving the UK’s transition to net zero carbon will still be a significant government priority.  An Energy White Paper is expected in the Spring or early Summer and is likely to act as a set piece opportunity for the Prime Minister to set out the government’s green ambitions in more detail.

 

Summary

Boris Johnson’s Government has been tasked to ‘Get Brexit done and unleash Britain’s potential’.  The attention of the Prime Minister and his ministers will now turn to taking the decisions dictating what this means for the future economic and social direction of this country.  Many of those decisions will come in the next 100 days and the decision taken by politicians in 2020 will define the UK’s future for decades to come.  The complexity and scale of Brexit negotiations will continue to require huge amounts of civil service resource, impacting the majority of government departments.

 

 

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