E-scooters at a crossroads
E-scooters at a crossroads

In Conversation with Steve Richards — An Agenda-Setting Return to Westminster

Words by:
Account Manager
September 8, 2023

WA Senior Adviser, broadcaster and journalist, Steve Richards and WA’s Head of Public Affairs, Marc Woolfson, gave their take on an eventful first week in the return to Westminster including the far-reaching reshuffle of Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet, as well as predictions for party conference and the repercussions of upcoming by-elections that are all to play for.

The conversation is the latest in a series of discussions with senior political and media figures hosted by WA, and we have outlined some key takeaways from the discussion below:

Leaders attempt to get a grip

Over the last two weeks, Sunak and Starmer have been getting new top teams in place ahead of a critical political period. Sunak attempted to capture momentum heading into the first week of term starting with a reshuffle of critical people into critical roles. This has been dwarfed by a nightmarish back to school week with the RAAC scandal dominating headlines and Labour capitalising on the government’s perceived negligence.

This week, Starmer carried out an extensive reshuffle of his Shadow Cabinet, coinciding with former civil servant Sue Gray’s first day as his Chief of Staff. The reshuffle saw many changes made, including the widely reported demotion of Lisa Nandy from the Shadow Levelling Up brief – a move some within the party deemed bold, somewhat brutal, and reflective of Keir’s win-at-all-costs mentality.

Angela Rayner has inherited Nandy’s Levelling Up brief which is set to deliver a historic transfer of power from central government to local and regional authorities. However, whether or not this shift in power will become a reality remains to be seen, given the substantial financial implications.

As anticipated, the most senior members of the Shadow Cabinet, and those with responsibility for Labour’s ‘five missions’ remained in post. Ideologically, there has been a power base increase of (what could be called) Blairite centrists. With a focus on fiscal rectitude, reform to create efficiencies, and ensuring all policy commitments are scrupulously costed – a position Rachel Reeves and her team are ardently championing.

This reshuffle, combined with the 20-point lead in the polls, has resulted in an uneasy excitement within Labour, as the outline of the next government begins to take shape and policy development gets in full swing.

Party conference fever

Unlocking economic growth via industry investment, transformative tech and R&D and will be a golden thread running through each conference.

For the Tories, this focus is reflected in the news that the UK is expected to re-join the EU’s flagship science research scheme, Horizon. And Sunak’s party conference speech will be an important attempt to show he and the party have a vision that goes beyond the next few months.

Echoing the rhetoric of Blair’s 1997 campaign, Labour will lean heavily into the theme of science and technology to regenerate public services and generate growth. Shadow Business Secretary Johnny Reynolds is set to outline detail on the industrial strategy – how the private sector and government can collaborate to facilitate fertile grounds for inward investment. This, alongside the green recovery programme – championed by both Starmer and Reeves – is regarded as the engine for economic growth Labour is committed to. However, it is unlikely we will gain clarity on the finances behind these strategies until given the green light by Reeves.

Starmer remains laser focused on delivering his “five missions”, meaning any policy recommendations put forward by businesses should aim be framed within these ambitions.

Bellwether by-elections

The upcoming by-election in Rutherglen and Hamiliton is a pivotal moment for Labour in Scotland. It is a litmus test for whether Labour’s messaging is landing well in Scotland and if won, is indicative of the electorate moving in their favour.

In Nadine Dorries’ contested seat of Mid-Bedfordshire, tactical voting between the Lib Dems and Labour may secure a blue defeat, but the Tory’s could win on a split opposition vote. A loss in this seat will no doubt stoke Tory fears that the Lib Dems are gaining traction in the so-called Blue Wall and will have implications for Sunak’s campaigning tactics. The Tories will also put up a fight against Labour in the election for Chris Pincher’s constituency of Tamworth.

Looking ahead, the most important event in the Commons calendar will be the Autumn statement on 22nd November, followed by the Spring Budget in early 2024. It is expected that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will amplify the UK’s post-Covid growth rate as a triumph of the Tory’s economic policy that has then allowed for tax cuts. Whatever shape and size these tax cuts take, Labour will not be in a position to oppose them.

We are gearing up for an exciting, potentially election-defining, political run in the lead up to Christmas. To learn more about what this means for you, get in touch with WA’s team to see how we can work together.

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