Boris Johnson: Six issues set to define the next year for the UK Government
Last Friday saw Boris Johnson mark one year as Prime Minister – a year marked with highs and lows – including losing a working Parliamentary majority before uniting the Conservative Party and securing the largest Conservative majority since the 1980s. Our Public Policy team looks at six of the key issues that look set to define the next 12 months for the Government, of which the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is of course pre-eminent:
- Health and Social Care
With fears of a second wave of coronavirus in the lead up to, or during, winter, the Government is clearly looking to stave off suggestions that it’s not doing enough to support the NHS in England with a further £3 billion investment. In the past week, tough choices have been made to seek to limit a second wave, whether the re-introduction of a quarantine from people returning from Spain, or re-imposing tougher lockdown restrictions in parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire. With the NHS looking at how it can catch up on the backlog, there’s a question about whether that money will be enough to get the NHS through what may be its most difficult winter in history.
In a step away from his libertarian tendencies, Johnson now sees a greater role for Government in adopting a more preventative approach to healthcare. Following his own Covid-19 experience, the Prime Minister has made clear the country needs to do its bit and lose weight. The Government is investing in cycling and walking infrastructure and trying to make it easier for people to lead more active lives, such as through GP prescribing, while restricting how high fat and sugar products can be promoted, including banning buy one, get one free offers. It’s a marked shift from the PM.
A year ago, Johnson committed to finding a cross-party solution to social care and said a plan had already been prepared. Pressure has mounted on the Government to reform social care mounting given the spread of coronavirus through care homes. Johnson and Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock will need to move soon. Social care has been difficult for governments of all persuasions – oppositions haven’t fallen into line behind governments. Even with a large majority, Johnson and Hancock will be hoping that Labour is prepared to come to the table in a constructive manner and that they can leave the table with an agreed way forward. The fact there is no General Election for four years will aid this.
- Public Spending
With Chancellor Rishi Sunak set to hand down his second budget in the Autumn, we can expect a push for Departmental savings but also probably more borrowing to invest in the infrastructure promises the Midlands and North expect the Government to honour. Johnson has all but ruled out a return to austerity, but one thing is clear – Johnson and Sunak have a clear economic mission (and challenge): restore confidence and boost consumer spending to shore up the economy and defend against an impending recession.
- Reform of Government
The Government is keen to reform the way Whitehall operates and further devolve decision making powers across England. While not looking to ‘destroy the joint’, there’s a clear feeling that Whitehall impedes effective delivery. The appointment of a new Cabinet Secretary later this year will give an indication of how radical the Government is prepared to be in its reforms. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, and most likely Dominic Cummings, will try to reform the Civil Service to make it leaner, more productive and reactive to the Government and public’s needs.
At a local level, the Government will also outline plans for further devolution in England with the dissolution of some district and borough councils and the formation of more Combined Authorities. It will enable less politicking, more localised decision making (always popular) with greater accountability and, in theory, more action and delivery. This may have a greater impact on Conservative councils than urban Labour councils, so the move is not without its controversy.
- Getting to Net Zero
It’s clear the Government wants to demonstrate energy policy and getting to Net Zero is a key factor in its economic recovery strategy. As it doubles down on its commitment to address climate change, the Government needs to be seen to be putting tangible domestic policies and strategies in place so it can credibly be seen as a world leader in this space. This is particularly crucial as the UK will host, and be President of, the UN’s Climate Change Conference in November next year. While the approach to date has been slow and steady as opposed to radical and immediately game changing, to credibly lead the world in this place, the UK Government may look to implement bigger and bolder green policies in a shift than we’ve seen to date.
- The EU and Global Trade
The UK and EU trade deal talks are currently at a stalemate, with different views in Government as to how it will end. The big sticking points are: EU and City of London market access; the role of the European Court of Justice as an arbiter of any deal; and fishing rights. The UK Government believes that the best way to deal with the EU is push for the EU habit of eleventh-hour compromises, forced by member state leaders, to present itself.
Boris Johnson re-negotiated Theresa May’s Political Declaration to enable the UK to diverge where it is of benefit to do so, rather than being tied to the EU rulebook. Northern Ireland will however remain tied to it. With Northern Ireland being only 2% of the UK market, companies may increasingly move to supply it from the EU (particularly the Republic of Ireland) or to supply NI from GB, but at a higher cost. We may see the ramifications of this play out in 2021..
Northern Ireland notwithstanding, the UK wants the freedom to diverge to be more productive, competitive and forge closer trade links with countries outside of the EU. Trade talks are ongoing with the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, which will require major effort to conclude in 2020. It will likely mean that any deals with Japan and the US are narrower, with any text with the former based on its existing EU free trade agreement. With the US presidential election on 3 November and a number of controversial areas to be fought over, any US deal concluded may initially be limited, if it can be done before the election at all.
Most recently, the UK Government started precursor work to become a signatory to the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, seen as helpful in its push to modernise the WTO’s rulebook on services and digital technology. With tensions between the UK and Chinese Governments increasing, not only would the UK joining the TPP-11 see the biggest free trade grouping in the world (in terms of GDP) in China’s backyard, but it may allow the UK to promote a diversification of supply chains away from China and affirm that the fastest growing global growth area is key to its strategic priorities.
- Scotland and the Union
As we mentioned in the first edition, the Scottish elections will be a key milestone in Boris Johnson’s next 12 months, and an SNP majority will add pressure on him to accept a second independence referendum. If Johnson cannot secure a trade deal with EU by the time the campaign starts in March, he will lack an important shield with which to rebut the SNP’s claims that taking Scotland out of the EU was an unpopular mistake. Johnson will also want his team to spend more time in Scotland; no doubt to reinforce the point that the massive Coronavirus support package is only possible from within the UK.
Cutting across these issues are the questions of how much longer the two biggest characters of Number 10 stay there. Cummings has proved insightful (Durham trips notwithstanding) but is a polarising character. Recent actions have strained relations between Number 10 and the Tory benches, and even with a strong majority, the PM can’t continue the haemorrhage goodwill. Once the transition period ends, or the UK secures an FTA with the EU, there’ll be pressure for Cummings to move on.
Johnson has understandably been impacted – physically and mentally – by the events of the past 12 months with many saying he’s back to full strength. While there are no impeding calls for him to go, there is an increasingly held view his successor as PM isn’t on the Opposition benches but sitting around the Cabinet table with him.
It’s obviously too early to tell how much Brexit or Coronavirus will define Boris Johnson’s premiership, but these two different, and still ongoing events, from his first year in office will continue to dominate his efforts (and his legacy) as Prime Minister in the years ahead.