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The next election is all to play for

John Baron MP
September 18, 2023

September marks the anniversary of the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King Charles. Those days immediately after Her Majesty’s death will not easily be forgotten, but little more underlines the continuity, unity and stability of our country than the handing over of the royal baton. For all the talk of radical royal reform, the King has sensibly judged the country’s mood and has opted to keep things essentially the same. Whatever else may change around us, it is reassuring that the monarchy remains constant and in good hands.

September likewise marks the anniversary of the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss. Her appointment came at the end of a long, hot summer campaign which caused the Conservatives real damage – Labour’s PR department simply took to rebroadcasting Conservative MPs’ attacks on each other. It was an ill omen when, in backing Truss over Sunak, the Conservative membership overturned the vote of Conservative MPs, and there were further concerning signs when the Cabinet was only comprised of Truss loyalists.

The ’mini-budget’ stands as the textbook example of how not to go about momentous decisions, how not to reassure the markets and how not to respond to the predictable and predicted fallout. After the quiet dignity of the royal family, Truss’ resignation lit the blue touchpaper on a further period of enormous political turmoil. Boris Johnson was a serious contender, just a few months after his premiership ran out of road when he couldn’t staff a government. Fortunately he didn’t press the matter, and Rishi Sunak’s main challenge in the year since has been to put the government back on an even keel – which he has successfully achieved, even as the Government’s challenges have continued to mount.

The ’mini-budget’ stands as the textbook example of how not to go about momentous decisions Quote

Over the last year it has also been all change in Scotland. From being the titan of the Scottish political scene, Nicola Sturgeon’s star has come crashing down to earth. Her customary sure-footedness deserted her when she unwisely asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether the Scotland Act allowed the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a second independence referendum, which left her on a collision course with fervent nationalists.

Her political troubles were compounded when the SNP government overreached itself by pushing for Gender Self-ID changes, the implications of which it seemed they did not fully appreciate. A judicious use of Section 35 by the Scottish Secretary put the British Government on the side of public opinion in Scotland, and in due course Sturgeon resigned. It is also difficult to believe that the subsequent arrests of her and her husband, the SNP’s chief executive, played no part in this decision, and we all await the outcome of the Police enquiries. As yet, no charges have been laid.

The travails of the SNP, whose reputation for iron discipline was broken apart during its divisive leadership campaign, together with Labour’s current favourable polling, has changed the political weather across the UK. Though the polls report a significant segment of opinion in Scotland inclines towards independence, it is also clear that other more pressing issues trump it. After a long period of SNP dominance, it seems that the usual forces of political gravity are reasserting themselves, and unionists may be allowed a certain confidence – but not complacency.

The past year has also seen welcome change in our relationship with the EU, as it moves towards a more pragmatic relationship with one of its major trading partners and key allies. This, together with a concerted push from London, led to the agreement of the Windsor Framework. This will ease many of the tensions over trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, recognising that the Northern Ireland protocol had become the problem rather than the solution.

More recently, the EU continued this pragmatic approach by finally allowing British scientists and institutions to participate in the Horizon programme. British researchers were amongst the greatest beneficiaries of the programme, and the EU’s petulant decision to exclude them for two years over unrelated issues was a decision bemoaned by British and European scientists alike. The Government secured a good deal, with the UK not having to pay contributions for the years of exclusion and a mechanism to ensure we don’t pay in more than we receive.

Another recent major change, which attracted far less media coverage than it deserved, was the ONS revising our GDP statistics. Finding an extra £40 billion of output in 2021, it declared that Britain’s economy was already back to its pre-pandemic size by the end of that year – in fact, it was already 0.6% above this level. This large revision is all the more startling because it was only a few months ago that it was estimated that our GDP was still smaller than before the pandemic.

Indeed, a damaging narrative has built up, both domestically and internationally, that Britain is the economic laggard of the developed world, with a unique set of problems (which for some will always be ‘Brexit’). This whole narrative is now shown to be false – the UK’s recovery in 2021 was actually stronger than that of France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Within the G7, only Canada and the United States had a stronger recovery. This ONS revision joins a long run of inaccurate forecasts and assessments – our economy is fundamentally stronger than many believe.

Finally, two constants over the past year are that Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer are still the leaders of their parties, and that Labour retains a lead in the polls. The election, expected next year, may not be the foregone conclusion for Labour that many assume. Starmer has yet to ‘seal the deal’ with the electorate, and there is very little clarity over the policies his government would pursue.

Telling voters that ‘we will do the same job, but better’ is not enough, and a Labour government will find small boats and sewage as difficult to address as the current government. Conservatives will highlight this as the election looms, and the polls will tighten. There is still all to play for.

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John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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