John Baron MP reflects on this year's autumnal Parliamentary session. The challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and EU negotiations have lasted an eternity. Yet, there is still room for improvement and the government must be more skilled at avoiding traps.

The autumn Parliamentary session invariably feels like the longest and heaviest of the year, with darkening days and plenty of Parliamentary drama. Last year's session saw the momentous disagreements over prorogation, more knife-edge votes, rebellion, and the extraordinary General Election. Its like was not likely to be repeated. However, Covid-19 and Brexit are ensuring an equally eventful session this year. These are challenging times for the Government but if it can keep to its course and continue to think strategically the rewards will be substantial for country and party alike.

Coronavirus is once again on the march as the cold weather returns. This phenomenon is being observed all over Europe, including in countries such as the Netherlands which appears to have had an exemplary response to the pandemic. After a raft of measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, including the 'Rule of Six', and concern about their economic effects, it was reasonable for MPs to call for greater involvement in the decision-making process. This came to a head with a rebellion by some Conservative backbenchers on the vote to extend the already time-limited powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020.

Government assurances were forthcoming. I do not consider the Government has been draconian in its response to the pandemic. Our knowledge of the virus is still evolving, we do not have a vaccine, hospital admissions are back to March levels, and the first duty of government is to protect lives. Furthermore, the £200bn cost of these measures could, in large part, be recouped if we axed the white elephant called HS2 and reduced our bloated network of quangos. MPs had made their point, and there have been Statements and votes on coronavirus restrictions since. The Government would be wise to maintain this approach.

Apart from the coronavirus, the Government's other major challenge is the ongoing tussle with the EU over our trade negotiations. The strategic view must be maintained. A deal is much more likely than not because it is so clearly in our shared interests, but the UK has nothing to fear if a deal is not possible by the end of the transition period. Indeed, our country's many relative advantages will remain powerful reasons for continuing to do business in the UK as evidenced by the extent of inward investment since voting to leave while, given our substantial trade deficit with the EU, any tariffs will be in our favour.

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There is then the reputational risk for the EU. Whilst it has dug in on narrow issues in our negotiations, insisting on guarantees not found in other trade treaties and failing to recognise the UK as an independent country, Britain has quietly and efficiently agreed trade and fishing deals with Japan and Norway. It will fall to the EU to explain to its other international partners its inability to strike even a minimalist and off-the-shelf trade deal with one of its closest neighbours which was, after all, an EU member for nearly 50 years.

While the Government's bandwidth is largely taken up by the EU negotiations and the coronavirus, it is encouraging that it retains focus on other policy issues. Notwithstanding its recent disagreement with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, it remains committed to rebalancing the north/south divide and levelling up across the country – in no small part recognising the historic shifts arising at the last General Election. This is part of the Government's One Nation agenda which remains of paramount importance – it being the very essence of our Party's being.

But there is always room for improvement. The Government's economic support packages have been some of the most generous, and essential 'sticking plasters'. But with the economy in transition, it again needs to think strategically. Lessons can be drawn from the Thatcher-era Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which helped hundreds of thousands of people over a number of years transition from unemployment to self-employment. The Chancellor undertook to consider this scheme when I raised the issue with him recently at Treasury questions, and I look forward to hearing of progress.

The Government must also be more adept at avoiding elephant traps. The recent vote on extending free school meals being a case in point. The Government's argument that if allowed it could become the norm simply did not wash given most sensible people understand that pandemics require extraordinary measures. Given the huge cost of the virus package so far, the extra cost of this measure was frankly a wart on the elephant's backside – and yet political capital has been expended.

That said, if a week is a long time in politics then four years is an eternity. The Government essentially retains people's support in its response to the crisis and over its handling of the EU negotiations. It has a healthy Parliamentary majority. The alternative to Boris' 'restrictive' coronavirus measures is Labour's more restrictive policy. The Government just needs to retain its nerve. Having spent part of my youth in Africa, it needs to remember that 'dogs bark as the elephant walks by'.

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