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From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the government’s agenda?
From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the Government’s agenda?

Leadership on a precipice

Words by:
Associate Director
January 26, 2022

Boris Johnson stands at the edge of the precipice, his fate in the hands of parliamentary colleagues, many of whom see him as an electoral liability. It is a stark contrast to the aftermath of his 2019 electoral triumph which saw him become the most powerful sitting Prime Minister since Tony Blair. It is now very unlikely he will lead the Party into the next election.

But as Westminster awaits the publication of Sue Gray’s report, exactly how and when might his fate will be sealed remains unclear. So what are the possible scenarios, and what do they mean for organisations seeking to engage with political stakeholders?

Scenario 1: Sue Gray’s report delivers a killer blow

What happens in this scenario?

The contents of Sue Gray’s report are sufficient to trigger the critical threshold of 54 Conservative MPs delivering letters of no confidence to Graham Brady, the 1922 Committee Chair, and the Prime Minister loses the subsequent confidence motion. In this scenario a Conservative leadership election will commence with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss the clear front-runners.

What does this mean for policy development and political engagement?

All formal Government policy processes will be put on hold pending review by the new Prime Minister and a newly assembled Cabinet. In many areas there will likely be consistency, albeit after a delay of some weeks/months. But there are clearly opportunities for business to seek changes of direction or emphasis in a number of areas under a new administration.

New faces will rise to positions of power and influence within the government. It will be important to quickly engage with new ministers and advisers, and ensure you have a broad base of advocates within the Party. Any policy agendas that were not explicitly backed in the last manifesto will be most subject to change and there will be an opportunity for a new leader to row back on anything controversial, such as the planned National Insurance increase.

However, the core challenges filling the new Prime Minister’s in-tray will remain the same: tackling the cost of living crisis, decarbonisation, post-Covid economic recovery and defending ‘Red Wall’ seats in the Midlands and the North.

Scenario 2: MPs attempt to wield the knife but the Prime Minister clings to power

What happens in this scenario?

As in scenario 1, Sue Gray’s report triggers the necessary 54 no confidence letters but the Prime Minister manages to win the subsequent no confidence vote. Under current Party rules, a formal leadership challenge using this mechanism could not be triggered for another twelve months. The Prime Minister’s authority would still be severely damaged but his administration would limp on.

While his team would attempt to present the leadership issue as having been resolved, Theresa May’s experience showed that the danger would still remain. A poor performance at the local elections in May or inability to pass a significant piece of legislation could still trigger another crisis, albeit with less clarity over the mechanism to remove him.

What does this mean for policy development and political engagement?

In this scenario, policy development and delivery of key Government priorities could be slowed down or changed in any area that is remotely controversial given the Prime Minister’s diminished political capital. The Cabinet would become stronger and backbench Conservative MPs would be emboldened to press their own agendas. Whereas before almost all policy was ultimately dictated by and decided in No 10, there will be much more opportunity to influence policy via a wider set of stakeholders.

Controversial issues such as the National Insurance increase will become much harder to push through and the Government’s overall direction will increasingly be subject to influence from the various factions on the Conservative backbenches. For example, No 10 will be under severe pressure from backbenchers to take a more interventionist approach to tackling the cost of living crisis, with energy bills the next high profile lightning rod. Furthermore, there will be a significant shake-up of personnel in No 10 – officials and advisors – in an attempt to draw a line under recent events and move on.

However, uncertainty will continue to hang over the future of the Prime Minister with potential candidates to replace him continuing to cautiously prepare for the day when the ball might “come loose at the back of the scrum”. This all means it will be important to factor in a broader, more diffuse range of stakeholders who can influence policy when conducting engagement campaigns.

Scenario 3: MPs keep their powder dry a little longer

What happens in this scenario?

The Sue Gray report comes and goes without seeing 54 letters submitted to Graham Brady. The Prime Minister is damaged, embarrassed and forced to refresh the Number 10 team but his Government limps on. This is similar to scenario 2 but his authority is in some ways even more diminished with the threat of a confidence vote constantly hanging over his administration. Every political challenge in the coming months is viewed through the prism of Johnson’s leadership and every mis-step could prove his last. The May elections and any big tests in Parliament will take on added significance.

What does this mean for policy development and political engagement?

This would look and feel very similar to scenario 2 but with a greater sense of the Prime Minister living on borrowed time. Every major political and policy challenge would be viewed through the prism of whether it could trigger 54 letters and the bleed of power from No 10 to Cabinet members and backbenchers would be even more pronounced. All eyes would be on the potential leadership candidates to see how any comment or pronouncement would indicate a shift in policy.

The local elections in May would be framed as a de-facto referendum on the Prime Minister’s leadership and his policy agenda would face challenge at every turn. Broadening out the stakeholders you engage will still be critical as you will need to demonstrate that any change is backed by as many factions and influencers as possible. There will also be more opportunities to slow down or amend any policies that could attract the ire of mutinous Conservative MPs.

In all scenarios, we are about to enter a new, less predictable political phase in Westminster. The landscape of decision makers and influencers looks drastically different to that of twelve months ago and anyone seeking to influence change will need to navigate it with care.

 

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