A year on from the 2019 General Election, could 2021 be a defining year for the Boris Johnson Government?
One year ago this week, voters across the UK went to the polls for the third general election in less than five years. Boris Johnson’s 80 seat majority -the Conservatives’ best result since 1987- confounded pollsters and pundits alike, and plunged Labour into a deep-seated crisis as the Conservatives won seats across Labour’s heartlands in the North, Midlands and Wales that were previously deemed unwinnable.
With a newfound confidence, and apparently unassailable majority, commentators spoke of a Conservative decade, comparing the strength of Boris’ position with that of Tony Blair after his landslide election win in 1997.
The Conservatives’ plans for the seemingly golden years ahead were driven by the desire to ‘level up’ – defined by the party’s manifesto as spreading investment to parts of the country overlooked by previous Governments; a fundamental departure from the mantra that ‘Whitehall knows best’.
Seemingly mere weeks after Boris’ victory lap, however, came the unforeseen and enormous challenge of COVID-19. The subsequent, and many would argue un-Conservative, Government intervention in the economy and previously untouched aspects of everyday lives was unprecedented. All of which meant that ‘levelling up’ inevitably took a back seat in 2020.
While the polls show continued public backing for lockdown restrictions, that doesn’t translate to support for the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The Government’s response will likely be put to the test in 2021 for two main reasons: the vaccine rollout will be a clear test of competence, and the worst recession in centuries is set to bring economic hardship to many, not least the demographic that won the election for the Party.
Whether a successful vaccine roll out allows a return to ‘normal’ or not, or the predicted surge in unemployment (forecast to hit 2.6 million by mid-2021) triggers further political instability, 2021 is shaping up to be a crucial year for the Johnson Government.
Foundations which felt rock solid on December 13th 2019 feel slightly more shaky a year later for other reasons, too. The Conservatives’ majority is already showing signs of fracturing; not fatally for the Government, but enough to sound concerned within Downing Street. Divisions over how the Government balances its newer ’Red Wall’ voters and more traditional Conservatives present a growing challenge. This was particularly highlighted with 55 Tory MPs opposing the latest COVID restrictions, leaving a Government with an 80-seat majority reliant on Labour abstentions for the measures to pass.
Conservative MPs are far more restless than would have been expected a year ago. New splits mean previously loyal supporters of Boris Johnson (the likes of Graham Brady MP and Jake Berry MP) have turned to Parliamentary splinter groups over a range of issues; how the Government delivers for the Midlands and North of England; how it picks up the fight on so-called culture war issues that it’s perceived to be slow or unwilling to tackle; how it manages UK relations with China; and, as ever, how it should deal with the European Union.
The Labour Party looks very different 12 months on, too. Following its worst defeat since 1935, Labour have shifted direction from their leftwards move under Jeremy Corbyn, and though the party are still searching for a clear direction, Keir Starmer’s polling at this stage in the electoral cycle is bettered only by Tony Blair’s. If perceived competence of the leaders becomes the defining issue, Starmer may benefit further in the polls, though his party continues to perform poorly in surveys on economic credibility – something which a painful recession and slow recovery may change.
With elections in Scotland in May, the spectre of Scottish independence will loom large in the event of an expected SNP majority, though Westminster could (and most likely would) ignore the cries from north of the border that a “material change in circumstances” should mean another referendum.
Internally, the recent departures of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain from Downing Street – both of whom were central to the Vote Leave team that both propelled Boris to power and helped craft his victory a year ago – unquestionably changes the dynamic of Downing Street. The planned radical reform of the Whitehall machine will likely be blunted, but whether the changes deprive the Government of its driving force for broader reform, or allow for a more consensual approach, remains to be seen. Certainly, relations with the media will change with the new televised press briefings fronted by Allegra Stratton, the new public face of Downing Street.
Early 2021 will likely see a Cabinet reshuffle as part of Downing Street’s efforts to freshen up both its personnel and its post-COVID (and Brexit) focus. As well as a renewed focus on ‘levelling up’, there will be an emphasis on ‘core’ issues such as schools, housing and infrastructure. Voters concerned about the economy may become impatient with policies which are well intentioned but slow to come to fruition.
With the UK set to host the UN’s Climate Change Conference in November, COP26, there will be a greater focus on the environment, and the Prime Minister’s planned Green Industrial Revolution. A big moment for the Prime Minister’s Global Britain, the Government could nonetheless find itself squeezed between environmental groups calling for it to go further than it is able to, and a sizeable chunk of the electorate concerned about the cost and practicalities of some green policies.
2020 saw unimaginable circumstances and an equally unforeseen Government response. We should expect nothing less than unpredictability in 2021. With a ravaged economy, opposition growing from all corners, and a post-Brexit reality to contend with, 2021 could well be a defining year for Boris Johnson and his Government.