The new UK Government
The scale of the Conservative Party’s victory in the 2019 General Election seemed to surprise even some of their own strategists. The key players at Conservative HQ had hoped that they might achieve a big win, but given that the path to victory required winning a set of seats that had not been Conservative for a generation, and in some cases ever, few believed it would actually happen until the exit poll dropped at 10pm.
Boris Johnson now heads a government with an 80 seat majority and has an opportunity to shape the future direction of his party and the country. A Prime Minister in such a position can wield real power, but it is not untrammelled and there will be challenges and bumps in the road in the months to come.
The clear outcome of the election is that the UK will be leaving the European Union on 31st January 2020. Any doubts about what would happen on this first stage of Brexit were swept away in just a few hours on Thursday night. What is more interesting is what comes next. Some commentators and EU leaders seemed to believe that Boris Johnson’s sweeping majority would mean a softer Brexit and closer alignment with the EU. This however was given short shrift by Downing Street over the weekend.
Although No10 will want to focus on the domestic agenda in the coming months, the shape of the future relationship will still take up a lot of the bandwidth within Whitehall. The EU are ready for these negotiations and Michel Barnier has already proven to be an effective lead. The UK has just a few weeks to prepare its position and will need to be clear about its objectives in order to be successful.
The timeline for such negotiations is very challenging, and although any extension to the transition period is currently being ruled out by the UK Government, Boris Johnson has shown that for all the rhetoric, he is prepared to be flexible when it comes to the crunch. It is hard to believe that he would choose the disruption of “No Deal” over an extension of a few months.
The Conservative manifesto was deliberately modest and contained relatively few concrete pledges. This gives Mr Johnson maximum flexibility, but means that inevitably some MPs, stakeholders and indeed voters will end up being disappointed. Many in the current Cabinet subscribe to a “Britannia unchained” view of the country’s future and that the government should pursue a low-tax, low-regulation approach as the country maps out its post-Brexit direction.
Yet this Conservative parliamentary party is much changed. It now represents industrial and post-industrial seats in the north and midlands, in many cases by relatively young MPs. They will want to be re-elected and will need to show they can deliver for their new supporters, to repay the trust placed in them.
Although the promises were relatively modest, the manifesto did propose higher levels of public spending on the NHS, Education and Infrastructure and Mr Johnson has explicitly described this as a “One Nation Conservative Government”. He will know that the political prize at stake is not just winning one election, but constructing a new governing coalition that could dominate the 2020’s. It is hard to believe that he, and his chief aide Dominic Cummings, will cede that ground voluntarily.
But we may need to wait a few weeks to have confirmation of the direction and the detail. No10 was briefing over the weekend that there would be a major reshuffle after the 31st January. It is only after we see the composition of that new Cabinet and the contents of the Spring Budget that we can definitively map out the priorities of this new government.
Expect to see structural changes in Whitehall after the end of January too, with discussions clearly already underway. Speculation in recent days has focussed on the possible break-up of the Home Office, the folding of the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office, the recreation of a Department for Climate Change and the re-organisation of the Departments of Business, International Trade and Exiting the EU.
Although the Conservatives won handsomely in England and to a certain extent Wales, the SNP surged in Scotland winning 48 seats. This sets up a battle over Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for a second independence referendum. Expect a formal request (perhaps as soon as this week) from the Scottish Government for IndyRef 2, to be politely, but firmly rejected by the UK Government. This however is not an argument that will disappear quickly. Those who are concerned about the future of the Union will also have noted that for the first time the Unionists returned a minority of MPs in Northern Ireland.
While the Conservatives grapple with the challenges of government, the focus for Labour in the next few months will be on a leadership election to replace Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn and his team have been unapologetic, blaming Brexit, rather than leadership or policy for the party’s failure. Labour pro-Corbyn membership now has a real choice to make – does it move (at least to a certain extent) back to the centre or continue with its hard-left experiment?
Later today Mr Johnson is expected to make appointments to vacant spots in his ministerial team and will welcome newly elected Conservative MPs to Westminster. The Queen’s Speech for the new Parliament will take place on Thursday, with the Withdrawal Agreement Bill getting its second reading shortly after.
Everyone will then get a well-deserved break from politics over Christmas, but 2020 promises to be just as important as this year was for country’s future. The focus may be more on Whitehall than Westminster, but will be no less significant for that.
For further advice and support or if you have any questions, please contact Razi Rahman, Partner and Head of Political at Maitland/AMO, on firstname.lastname@example.org