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Year of political crises, with a ’70s vibe

23 December 2022

After a tumultuous year, there are plenty of issues left to fuel the fires in 2023, reports Mark D’Arcy


The general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Mick Lynch (centre), with union members on a picket line outside Euston Station, in June

The general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Mick Lynch (centre), with union members on a picket line outside ...

WITH inflation, strikes, superpower confrontation, and power cuts, there is a distinct echo of the 1970s in today’s politics. So, rather than emerge into post-pandemic sunlit uplands, Britain has simply moved on into the latest in the series of political crises that, one after another, have preoccupied Government and Parliament since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The guard has changed, of course. The year began with Boris Johnson heading the Queen’s Government, and ended, after a brief interlude with Liz Truss, with Rishi Sunak heading the King’s Government. The seething political drama was only briefly stilled by the loss of our longest-reigning monarch.

Gathering interviews for my Friday round-up on Radio 4’s Today in Parliament, I used to have a little joke: “Barring the sudden fall of the Prime Minister,” I’d say, “this will be broadcast on Friday.” It stopped producing a giggle.

The prime ministerial merry-go-round of 2022 has wounded the credibility and the cohesion of the Conservative Party, which is eyeing its current dire poll ratings with real trepidation. It was telling that a recent poll that showed the Tories a mere ten points behind Labour was greeted with hosannas by some of their supporters.

Convulsion on this scale has a cost. In Parliament, bruised supporters of not one but two ousted PMs nurse their contusions and find ways to be difficult. New pressure groups are springing up; backbenchers are pressing policy demands.

Mr Sunak has already seen a couple of uprisings over issues such as housing targets and onshore wind. The ferocious backbench reaction to a suggestion that the Government might seek “Swiss-style” closer links with the EU was an ominous warning. And the PM doesn’t need acute hearing to detect the warning rumble of discontent over the tax increases needed to restore market confidence after the débâcle of Ms Truss’s and Kwasi Kwateng’s attempt at a tax-cutting dash for growth (News, 30 September).

So, the latest Prime Minister thrown up by 2022 faces hard times, with little room for manoeuvre. Everywhere, there are demands that he cannot meet: the legacy of the pandemic in NHS backlogs, court backlogs, education backlogs, nurses’ pay, pretty much all public-sector pay, and shrunken armed forces in a suddenly dangerous world.

IN HIS annual House of Lords debate (News, Comment, 16 December), the Archbishop of Canterbury described what he had seen during his recent visit to Ukraine (News, 2 December): “Standing by a mass grave, I met people who, with astonishing resolve, face a winter under Russian bombardment explicitly to destroy civilian infrastructure; a winter where, next month, it will fall probably to –20ºC, and they will have neither electricity nor, because of that, water and the ability to heat.”

His debate was on UK asylum and refugee policy — and it included horrific accounts of atrocities from conflicts elsewhere. In part, it was a full-on attack on the government policy of removing asylum-seekers to Rwanda, which the Bishops’ Bench in the Lords united to condemn as “an immoral policy which shames Britain” (News, 17 June).

Those comments did not go unchallenged: the former minister Lady Stowell retorted that mass immigration was straining social cohesion, and asked: “When did virtue-signalling to one another within the elite become more important than keeping faith with the values we all have in common?”

This will be a very live issue in the coming year in politics — not least because it clearly lies behind a significant change in voter behaviour. Scrapping human-rights laws and international treaties that limit the Government’s ability to remove immigrants and asylum-seekers is now a rallying call on the Right. (The ex-minister and Red Wall Conservative, Jonathan Gullis, proposed a Bill on this in the Commons, just before Christmas).

AlamyThe Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, talks to a patient, Catherine Poole, during a visit to Croydon University Hospital in October. She told him that nurses should be paid more

There is much else to fuel the political fires. The big official Covid inquiry, presided over by the Appeal Court Judge Baroness Halley, begins its public hearings next year. It will scrutinise the big decisions of the pandemic on the timing of lockdowns, the decision to send people from hospitals into care homes, and the level of preparedness — not to mention the contracts to procure PPE. The cross-examination of Mr Johnson, his former adviser Dominic Cummings, and the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock will be major events, and could transform our understanding of what happened in those frightening months in 2020.

Another, more focused, inquiry will be the Commons investigation into whether Mr Johnson knowingly misled MPs about the lockdown parties in Downing Street. That, too, may feature public evidence from the main players, and will undoubtedly put those events back into the spotlight.

There are plenty more big-ticket issues: there is bound to be continued noise about another independence referendum for Scotland. And what about reform of the chronically dysfunctional social-care system? finding some way to boost the UK’s anaemic economic growth? tackling climate change?

To these can be added a couple of issues that will engage the Church. Gordon Brown’s recent report on constitutional reform proposed replacing the House of Lords with a streamlined 200-member Upper House, a senate of the nations and regions (News, Comment, 9 December). Would it still include Church of England bishops? Archbishop Welby may soon find himself repeating the question posed by his predecessor Lord Williams, the last time Lords reform was mooted: “To what problem is removing the Bishops the answer?”

Meanwhile, the Commons Health and Social Care Committee has announced an inquiry into assisted dying, looking at real-world evidence from the jurisdictions where it is legal. Campaigners for assisted dying have long wanted an inquiry along these lines, as a pitch-rolling exercise before a further attempt at legalisation — but it is not a done deal that the Health Committee will support it. Insiders suspect that recent membership changes have tilted the balance inside the committee away from assisted dying. So, an equivocal verdict, or even a split one, is not impossible.

HOW will all of these overlapping factors play out in 2023? The Government may respond to the wave of strikes with new laws. A Bill to require minimum service levels to be maintained when transport unions go on strike is ready on the parliamentary launch pad — although, as I write, it has not been scheduled for debate, and there is talk of wider legislation to clamp down on industrial action. Will they solve the problem or stoke it up? It may be — that ’70s vibe again — that an ability to handle strikes is now, once again, a must-have attribute for a government.

Labour has tiptoed carefully around the wave of industrial action. Part of looking like a government-in-waiting is not signing blank cheques for future pay deals, however sympathetic the party may be.

And there are more such dilemmas to come. Labour, having been ahead in the polls for a year, inevitably face questions about how it would handle the strikes and the state of public services, and it cannot afford to promise more money for every problem. Labour has plenty of cautious veterans of its previous spell in the wilderness in the ’80s and ’90s warning that much needs to be done to establish Sir Keir Starmer’s team as a government-in-waiting. And convincing voters that it is competent to exercise power is now its central mission. So, expect plenty of soothing sobriety from the Shadow Cabinet.

THE voters will have the chance to give their verdict in a big set of local elections, covering much of England outside London (and the elections across all councils in Northern Ireland will be an important barometer of the distinct political crisis there).

In Westminster, MPs will study the results in their patch closely for intimations of electoral mortality or survival. At the moment, Conservative MPs are hoping that the huge leads enjoyed by Labour in the polls are the legacy of the twin débâcles around Mr Johnson and Ms Truss, and that the clouds will, eventually, roll away. . . But, come next May, there will be hard evidence one way or another.

How will Conservatives react if those clouds still loom over them; how will Labour react if the prospect of government is dashed from its lips?

Mark D’Arcy is a parliamentary correspondent for BBC News.

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