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Clock ticks towards a General Election  

22 December 2023

The prospect of a return to the polls has dominated politics on both sides this year, reports Mark D’Arcy


Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak at the State Opening of Parliament, last month

Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak at the State Opening of Parliament, last month

WHAT a difference four years makes. Remember the triumphant, all-conquering Conservative Party of 2019? Boris Johnson’s government called the political shots, with an imposing majority after an election landslide, won on the slogan “Get Brexit Done.” It faced a shattered, chastened Labour Opposition, shorn of much of its electoral heartland, and contemplating a further decade out of power.

Fast forward to the present, and that governing party is dissolving into faction, while Labour can scarcely believe opinion polls, which suggest a landslide of its own when the next election comes. The prospect of power has allowed the party to hold together, despite deeply felt divisions over Gaza and other issues, in marked contrast to the constant infighting on the government side.

The impending election is the dominating fact of our current politics. The present Parliament’s sell-by date is set, by law, at 17 December 2024. In the unlikely event that a General Election has not been called before then (and the timing is in Rishi Sunak’s gift), Parliament is automatically dissolved on that day, and an election campaign will be added to next year’s Christmas and New Year festivities.

New initiatives to tackle the multitude of foreign and domestic crises besetting the State wait on the verdict of the voters.

OVERSHADOWING them all is the parlous state of the national finances. With the bills for the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due, there is very little room for manoeuvre for future ministers. Most observers believe that current budgets for public services are unsustainably tight, and that any future government will have to conduct a painful and sweeping reassessment of priorities — “The spending review from hell,” as one MP described it to me.

The current rash of local-council bankruptcies is just one symptom of the squeeze. There is speculation that other major public institutions, maybe some universities, could follow. And everywhere — in health, justice, education, and transport — public services are struggling.

In his annual House of Lords debate earlier this month, the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed to some of the implications on the ground for families (News, 15 December). He quoted the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report, which pointed to “the continuing downward trajectory of children’s happiness with life”, and suggested that “the UK is struggling to create conditions in which all children can thrive.”

He pointed to policy choices such as the two-child limit on benefits. Removing that, he said, would lift an estimated one quarter of a million children out of poverty. He challenged the Conservatives and Labour to make a commitment to removing the limit, but neither did. Labour may loath the policy, but the party’s rigid discipline over spending commitments prevents its promising to repeal the cap, despite pleading a “laser focus” on tackling poverty; and pretty much any demand for more spending on any cause meets the same response.

Assuming an election by the autumn, the final weeks of politics in 2024 look likely to be dominated by agonising dilemmas over public spending and taxation. Should a new government try to save some billions by fudging the “triple lock” on the state pension, which requires it to rise in line with earnings, inflation, or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest — the figure for 2024 will be 8.5 per cent. It is a fantastically expensive commitment, but ditching it would squeeze the poorest pensioners, and, as any politician will tell you, pensioners, unlike young people, vote.

How about tighter work requirements on benefits claimants? Promising these is pretty much an annual event, and doesn’t look like a great money-saver. Public investment in things such as roads and school buildings has long been squeezed, as drivers who weave between potholes, and children who shiver in cold classrooms, will tell you. Cut defence spending? With what’s going on in Ukraine?

How about tax increases? The tax burden is already the highest for half a century, and, while there is undoubtedly scope for clamping down on the most blatant tax-avoiders, more general increases risk squeezing the life out of the economy.

THE magic elixir that can ease these dilemmas is economic growth. An expanding economy lifts revenues and floats many problems away. But it is not easy to deliver, as Liz Truss’s brief tenure in 2022 demonstrated.

Signing new trade deals with other countries involves, er, trade-offs that can upset particular sectors of the UK economy. Farmers may not relish competition from cheap imports. Manufacturers may not think it fair to open up UK markets to competitors who don’t have the same environmental standards required of them.

A house-building boom would create jobs and growth, but the prospect of large new estates springing up on greenfield sites is guaranteed to produce a backlash. Take a look at the resistance generated by plans for massive house-building in the arc between Oxford and Cambridge.

Labour have kept their cards jammed firmly into their collective ribcage, but a Labour government might have a bit more room for manoeuvre on this issue, because far fewer Labour seats would probably be threatened by a public backlash against development.

And, although they don’t dare say it, or perhaps even think it, a Labour government might also have a bit more space to move the UK closer to the European Union. The trouble is that the economic pay-off for anything short of an arrangement that made this country a rule-taker, which passively accepted whatever regulations Brussels imposed, would be pretty marginal.

This brings us to the subject that dare not speak its name: Brexit. There may be polls out there suggesting that a majority of the public are disenchanted with life after the EU, that they support closer links or even rejoining, but there is notably little party-political appetite for reopening that Pandora’s box.

Why? It is hard to overstate the political trauma of the Brexit years, and the lingering poison of that vicious debate. It split all the main UK parties, and all of them fear reopening those wounds.

And then there is the awkward practical question what rejoining might actually mean. It certainly wouldn’t mean a snap return to the pre-2016 terms of UK membership, with the Thatcher rebate on budget contributions, and the opt-outs from the single currency, and the Schengen free-movement convention. And that is leaving aside the question of the EU’s willingness to re-engage with the UK’s political psychodrama.

ARCHBISHOP Welby has been active on another sensitive political topic: immigration. It was the subject of his debate in 2022, and he devoted considerable effort in the summer to pressing amendments to the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill (News, 14 July). He wanted the Government to lift its eyes from border-control measures, and focus on the underlying causes; so, he called for a ten-year strategy to tackle the global migration crisis — a suggestion that provoked some tetchy interventions from Conservative peers.

When his amendments were rejected, he followed up by proposing that peers set up a special committee to consider “The Vision and Effectiveness of UK Asylum and Refugee Policy”; but, again, that idea of taking a more strategic look at how to deal with a crisis driven by global inequality — and, increasingly, by environmental change in sub-Saharan Africa — was not accepted.

Meanwhile, ministers struggle to find a response to the rising levels of migration, legal and illegal. Part of the promise of Brexit was that it would allow Britain to take back control of its borders — but the reverse has happened, to the increasing fury of a powerful faction of Conservative MPs.

Driven by the prospect of electoral doom — and the current poll ratings have been, for them, unnervingly consistent — some Conservative MPs see immigration as the issue on which they can win against the odds. Labour, they believe, is vulnerable in the so-called “Red Wall”: the traditional-heartland seats they lost in 2019. And, if imposing a new policy means replacing Mr Sunak, it is a price that they are willing (and in some cases eager) to pay.

Perhaps they would even welcome the defeat of a new immigration policy in the Lords, or its being struck down again in the courts, to allow them to go to the country for a “Peers (or the judges) v. the People” or a “Who governs Britain?” election.

But will a policy that involves the UK’s ditching the European Convention on Human Rights then cost votes elsewhere, in the traditionally Conservative suburbs? As the clock ticks towards that next election, that argument is being fought out between rival Tory factions, and the battle is approaching fever pitch. Could they, dare they, change Prime Minister again? Might yet another leadership battle finally shatter the fragile unity of the Conservative Party?

And always remember, amid the increasingly bitter and inward-looking infighting, and with a stream of damaging stories emerging from the Covid inquiry, one of the deadliest things in politics is to have the voters conclude that you’re a shower.

Mark D’Arcy, a former parliamentary correspondent for BBC News, presents the Hansard Society’s Parliament Matters podcast.

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