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Political Update with Steve Richards – unpacking the year ahead

Words by:
January 11, 2024

WA Senior Adviser, broadcaster and journalist, Steve Richards gave his views on an exciting year ahead in British politics in conversation with Laura Gabb, WA’s Deputy Managing Director. From Conservative turmoil to the upcoming general election campaign and Labour’s plans for power, a lot is going on.  

The conversation is the latest in a series of discussions with senior political and media figures hosted by WA. You can read key takeaways from the discussion below:  

Tories face the future with trepidation 

Tory MPs are pessimistic about their chances of retaining power, with some senior MPs fearing a 1997-style wipeout – or worse. This reflects fear of an opposition ‘pincer movement’, as Labour target northern ‘Red Wall’ seats, while the Liberal Democrats take leafy ‘Blue Wall’ seats in the south.  

Upcoming by-elections in Kingswood and Wellingborough risk further undermining Mr Sunak’s authority. The resignation of Chris Skidmore in Kingswood – and the possibility that he will endorse Labour – reflect ongoing issues retaining liberal Tories who support green policies. Meanwhile, losing a Brexit-voting seat like Wellingborough to Labour would be catnip to Suella Braverman and others on Sunak’s right.  

Against this backdrop, rivals are positioning themselves to succeed Sunak if the election is lost. Three likely candidates from the party’s right – Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, and Priti Patel – will vie for a spot on the ballot, facing down the moderate One Nation Group. Kemi Badenoch is seeking to portray herself as the most sensible of these, but this may damage her among the powerful and hardline Tory membership.  

A key proxy battle in this shadow leadership contest is the ongoing debate around the Rwanda bill, with moderates like Robert Buckland seeking to water down hardline proposals from the right before the bill is voted on again later this month.  

The long campaign ahead  

Sunak fired the starting gun on a long election campaign at the beginning of January, as he appeared to rule out a spring election – making it all but certain that the poll will be held in the autumn.   

A November election seems most likely given that party conferences are held in early October, with the expectation being that the Prime Minister will use his conference speech to announce the dissolution of Parliament.  

The long run-up to the election will give the Tories something they urgently need – time. Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, will be hoping to use as many levers as possible to demonstrate that the Tories have a viable plan for the future. Not only is the Spring Budget expected to cut income tax, but there are whispers of a further fiscal event in June or July to continue a giveaway to voters. Economic competence is a crucial issue at any election, but it is even more salient given the cost-of-living crisis and ongoing global turmoil.  

A sure sign that the long campaign is already underway is the frequent appearances of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer setting out their stall to the country. While the rhetoric may grow more heated, it’s worth noting that both leaders are addressing a common theme: the need to secure sustained economic growth after fifteen years of stagnation.  

There are plenty of opportunities to exercise influence during these crucial few months as election manifestos are finalised and the Government aims to tie up loose ends in parliamentary business. But in doing so, it’s worth crafting approaches so that they address the wider electoral interests of each party.  

Labour prepares for power  

Reflecting the likely scenario that Keir Starmer wins the election, Labour’s election supremo Morgan McSweeney had aimed to have an embryonic manifesto in place before February. Work is still underway on the document and there is plenty of time to influence its contents before its release early in the general election campaign, but core themes have become clear.  

Since 2019, Labour has notably adopted a conciliatory stance on divisive culture war issues – such as immigration, Brexit, and gender – to neutralise Government lines of attack. While Sunak may try to provoke a response on these, Starmer’s office has maintained a strong focus on the bread-and-butter issues of the economy and public services.  

At the centre of Team Starmer’s vision for Britain is the idea of ‘mission-driven government’, with policy focused on five goals relating to economic growth, decarbonisation, the NHS, education, and crime. Any attempts to influence Labour before and after the election will need to appeal to one or more of these, with economic growth being paramount to Labour’s long-term vision for supporting the public sector.  

Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, are at pains to stress that Labour will not go on a spending binge in government to avoid unnecessarily having to raise taxes or increase borrowing. Capitalising on this, the Tories have made cutting taxes a core part of their appeal to voters. In response, Labour will have to either reverse these cuts or implement dramatic spending cuts to make the sums add up. For this reason, we are likely to see an emergency budget within a month of Labour winning an election, as Reeves decides her fiscal priorities. As ever, these events and their ability to unlock vital funding and incentives are a key target for any organisation trying to influence policy. 

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