By Oliver Gibson – KLTV Contributor
It seems as though little has been normal about British politics since the referendum result in 2016. The old pro-Remain guard that ruled from both sides of the House of Commons was shattered through various developments that occurred in the years that followed. Brexit fully took hold of British politics and was at the very front of the public mind for a good four years.
Following the 2017 general election, Parliament was arguably more divided than it had been since at least 1979. Theresa May’s government lost its majority in the House of Commons, and MPs from all parties and both sides of the Brexit argument undermined her efforts at every turn.
Brexit eventually brought an end to May’s time in No. 10, and Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on it was a contributing factor to his own decline.
It seems almost too obvious to say that this year has been anything but normal. In fact, it is probably safe to say that, in political terms, the events of this year will be more closely analysed in the run-up to the 2024 general election than any of the other years since the referendum result.
The arrival of the most serious pandemic in world history since the Spanish Flu of 1918 was always going to pose a problem for any government that handled it. Should the Government adopt a stricter approach, more lives could be saved from the virus, but this, of course, comes at a large human cost in terms of mental health and the damage to people’s livelihoods. Should the Government instead adopt a more relaxed approach, the social and family lives of people could be less disrupted, but this comes with the risk of an increased rate of infection and an increased death toll.
It was also bound to cause bitter divides amongst MPs in the House of Commons, as well as in the press and amongst the general public. If Brexit was a poisoned chalice for Theresa May, then the Covid-19 pandemic could be described as being a great big contaminated swimming pool for Boris Johnson.
Both major parties will make the issue of the Coronavirus a part of their campaigns in some way. This has already been demonstrated in debates during PMQs and in speeches by various MPs. It is equally important to analyse the relationship within the members of a party as it is to observe how that party interacts with its external opponents. So how have the major parties internally borne the brunt of the various developments of this year?
Following the 2019 general election, the Conservatives appeared to be stronger than they had been at any point perhaps since 1992. They had just won a landslide victory, securing a large majority in the House of Commons, and rallied around Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement. Britain’s relationship with the European Union, an issue that had bitterly divided the Party for decades, was now confirmed.
Now would begin a time of relative calm in British politics. The question as to whether Britain would leave the European Union had been answered. The Treasury’s purse strings would be loosened as part of Johnson’s flagship ‘level-up Britain’ policy.
The 31st of January 2020 was the day in which Britain finally left the European Union. In theory, this action alone would have marked the end of the monopoly of Brexit as an issue over British politics. However, things were already set in motion that none could have reasonably expected – for it was on that day that the Coronavirus came to the UK.
The Government’s response to Covid-19
A number of different responses to the Coronavirus have been employed by governments over the world. Sweden has been praised by some for its no-lockdown policy, which appears to have been successful. New Zealand has been praised by others for its stricter policy, which has left the country with fewer than 100 active cases as of the beginning of November.
The UK Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been criticised as being too harsh by some and not harsh enough by others. Some have said that the Government should have acted sooner, while others have criticised the economic impact of lockdown policies.
Brexit came to define Theresa May’s premiership, though her initial aims, as laid out in her speech outside No. 10 after becoming PM, were to strengthen the union, fight against ‘burning injustices’ and to make Britain a ‘country that works for everyone’. Boris Johnson’s wishes to ‘level-up Britain’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’ could well be overshadowed by his Government’s response to the pandemic, at least for the next few years.
How did the opposition react?
Keir Starmer’s initial approach as Labour leader was dubbed by some in the media as being one of ‘constructive opposition’. In his speech to the Labour Party Conference in September, Starmer asserted that he appreciated that ‘these are unprecedented times’ and initially ‘tried to give the Government the benefit of the doubt’. However, he later shifted his approach citing ‘Government incompetence’ and Britain’s death rate from the Coronavirus.
Following this shift in Starmer’s approach, Johnson accused Labour of ‘supporting the Government one day’ before ‘performing a massive U-turn the next’ in a session of PMQs in October. In fact, Labour’s Shadow
Education Secretary made headlines a few weeks ago for suggesting that the pandemic could be a ‘good crisis’ for the party to use in its campaigns, though she later apologised, and this has also been referenced by Johnson in PMQs and by the Conservative Party on various posts to social media.
It does seem as though Labour could use the Government’s response to the pandemic for its own purposes during election campaigns. If used properly, it could well prove to be an effective campaign strategy for the Party. However, this always comes with the risk of accusations of exploiting Coronavirus deaths, and the public’s misery, for political purposes.
In any case, Labour is currently performing well in national polls. Much better, in fact, than it was under much of Corbyn’s leadership. Though in some polls the Conservatives retain a base level of support of about 40%, Labour’s improved position will no doubt help Starmer to stabilise his position as Labour leader. He and the rest of Labour will no doubt be keen to build on the successes enjoyed in the past months, especially in the run-up to the extraordinarily large local elections next year.
How did Conservative backbenchers react?
The Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has not only been criticised by the Labour Party. Opinion amongst Conservative backbenchers on the Government’s course of action has been mixed since the initial lockdown was imposed on the 23rd of March.
Initially, Johnson managed to unite his Party on the issue of the Coronavirus. Conservative MPs belonging to different ideological groups rallied around No. 10, as did much of the Opposition, and the first lockdown was met with support in Parliament.
Steve Baker, a prominent backbench libertarian Conservative MP, in his ‘dystopian society’ speech in March, even supported the first lockdown on balance, stating that while it was ‘the right thing to do’ the lockdown conditions ought not to ‘endure one moment more than is absolutely necessary to save lives and preserve jobs’.
It is fair to say that over the course of the first lockdown, the public’s eagerness in those conditions faded, especially after the UK passed the initial peak of COVID-19 cases. The same can be said of the mood of many backbench Conservatives, who increasingly became frustrated with various Coronavirus restriction policies.
Sir Desmond Swayne has perhaps become the most vocal critic of the Government’s approach to the Coronavirus on the Conservative backbenches. He often speaks in favour of relaxing restrictions and adopting a more libertarian approach. In one of his most notable speeches on that topic, Swayne accused SAGE of attempting to run a ‘project fear’ campaign and stated that the Government had ‘by decree’ interfered with the private and family lives of the British people – ‘telling who we may meet, when we may meet them and what we must wear when we meet them’.
Some news sources warned of a backbench rebellion in the Conservative Party against the renewal of the Coronavirus Act in September. Swayne himself voted against its renewal, though it passed by a margin of 330-24. While he has made no move to topple the Government, his strong rhetoric nevertheless could indicate a growing mood in the Party against the Government’s Coronavirus policies.
Second lockdown tensions
The whole of the UK, apart from Scotland, is now under a second lockdown, with Johnson arguing that the ‘time-limited’ measures will require a ‘fresh mandate’ from Parliament in an appeal to less eager members of his Party.
There had been some discussion as to the possibility of a backbench rebellion in the Conservative Party, though the renewal of the Coronavirus Act was approved by Parliament by a sizable margin, as was previously mentioned.
Of course, the Government had fought against the idea of imposing a second lockdown for some time. The tiered restrictions policy, which is scheduled to be reinstated on the 2nd of December subject to the success of the second lockdown, had been their answer and various Government officials had defended the policy against attacks from the Labour front bench and from journalists.
It is not yet known how the Party would react to an extension of the second lockdown on the 2nd of December, but it is logical to assume that the backbench resistance to such a move would be larger than was experienced by the Government during past votes on Covid-19 matters.
The Party mood was perhaps demonstrated in an exchange that took place in the House of Commons just last week. Theresa May spoke in the Commons chamber on the topic of the Covid-19 pandemic for a total of four minutes. Six seconds into her speech, Boris Johnson walked out of the chamber, an act which was met with a disapproving grunt by MPs. Neither May nor Johnson appeared to be outraged by the other, though May and Iain Duncan Smith appeared to be quite surprised by the act.
Continuing with her speech, May commented on the need for Parliament to be informed on Coronavirus developments in order for it to make better judgements on that topic. The Government had been criticised some months ago by the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who accused the Government of having a ‘total disregard’ for the procedures of the House after new restrictions were announced on social media before being discussed in Parliament.
Leaks to the press and Cabinet mistrust
A major leak to the press occurred last week. It is believed that a member of the Cabinet informed a journalist of the meeting between Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock before the Government decided to move towards imposing a second lockdown.
Gove and Hancock were among the senior Government officials who were made to surrender their mobile phones for inspection as part of the inquiry into the leak to the press. Security experts were reportedly sent to the homes of Cabinet ministers to collect the mobiles for investigation. Such a move could demonstrate two seemingly contradicting truths, firstly that the Government is in a weak position and secondly that it is not.
The leak to the press could show that a member of the Cabinet is displeased with the direction of Government Coronavirus policy. It could also show that the Cabinet member is taking steps to undermine the position of the Government for their own personal gain.
On the other hand, the fact that many senior Government officials and Cabinet heavyweights had to surrender their phones for inspection could show that Boris Johnson is in a bold position over the members of his Government and that he is firmly in charge.
It is now known that the leak caused the second lockdown to be imposed sooner than Johnson had initially hoped for. According to the Mirror, the PM was planning to discuss the latest Coronavirus data with experts before moving to impose the second lockdown.
Whatever the reality is, it seems as though the Government will no longer tolerate efforts from within to undermine its position, especially when such moves undermine the Government’s position in the Commons and when they incite public panic. The days of Cabinet discord are perhaps over, and collective responsibility restored.
Biden’s win in America
It would have been quite the task to avoid news on the elections that took place last week in the United States. Social media has been practically drowning in posts and videos about the election, and it seems as though this interest is deserved.
That election has been anything but normal. Not only did it take a prolonged period of time to call states for each candidate, but the incumbent President, Donald Trump, is now contesting the results of the election.
It seems as though most agree that Joe Biden is now the President-Elect of the US and will be sworn into office in January 2021. Boris Johnson has recently congratulated Biden, Kamala Harris and their team on their victory and stated that he ‘looks forward’ to working with America’s new President.
However, Biden’s success in that election could mean trouble for the British Government. President Trump was a vocal supporter of Brexit and reportedly was a friend of Johnson’s. Biden’s Irish heritage and outspoken opposition to Brexit could well make the issue of the Irish border more difficult for the Government, and this could easily play into the hands of EU negotiators.
When approached by a BBC journalist after his victory, who asked for an interview, Biden chuckled and stated that he is ‘Irish’ and walked away from him. If Biden lets this bias, as has been touted by many in the media, get in the way of the partnership between the US and the UK, then the ‘special relationship’ could well be jeopardised. It is highly possible that Biden’s advisors would push for the new President to adopt a more diplomatic tone during talks with the UK, however.
To say that President Trump has been such a vocal supporter of Brexit, a trade deal has not yet been reached. It has been over a year since Vice President Mike Pence visited No. 10 and stated to the press that the US ‘supports Britain’s decision to leave the European Union’ and that the US was ‘ready, willing and able to immediately negotiate a free-trade agreement’. Yet, no such agreement has been reached.
Nigel Farage, a key friend of President Trump, stated in the last few days that the UK ‘wasted four years’ to negotiate a trade deal with the US and with a President who is a vocal supporter of Brexit. He also warned that Biden was Vice President for eight years under President Obama, who asserted in 2016 that the UK would be at the ‘back of the queue’ for a trade deal if it left the European Union.
Only time will tell how President-Elect Biden will act towards the UK. Biden and Johnson have not yet met, so there is potential for a positive, friendly working relationship to develop. However, many have already cast their doubts on that subject.
One obvious change for the Labour Party since 2019 was the election of its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer.
First elected to Parliament in 2015, Starmer was free of the controversial baggage that plagued his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, throughout his tenure as Labour leader. Considering the effect that Corbyn’s past controversies had on the Labour party’s campaign in 2019, this could well prove to be a welcome boost to the party in the future.
Despite having recently been elected to the post of Labour leader with 56.2% of the vote, Starmer is now at odds with elements of his own party. But is this anything new?
Power struggles in the Labour Party
It is common for parties to begin in-fighting when they are in positions of weakness. This could be seen in the divides in the Labour Party during Margaret Thatcher’s time as PM and in the Conservative Party during Tony Blair’s.
The Labour Party has been out of power for ten years, and in-fighting has already occurred during that period. Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015 but within a year faced the most serious rebellion of his time in office, with multiple resignations of senior Shadow Cabinet members and a vote of no-confidence in his leadership. While Corbyn won the resulting leadership election, cracks in the party remained.
A leaked dossier showed that the Party continued to be divided up to and past the 2017 general election. Two campaigns were run – one for the Party leadership, by pro-Corbyn MPs and much of the membership, and one against by Party officials. After the 2019 general election, multiple ousted Labour MPs, such as Caroline Flint, expressed their concerns that it was Corbyn’s leadership that cost the Party that election.
Divides over anti-Semitism
The Labour Party was divided on the issue of anti-Semitism throughout the Corbyn period. This notably culminated in February 2019, when multiple Labour MPs left to form The Independent Group in scenes similar to the creation of the SDP in the 1980s.
Starmer has already divided the Party as a result of his stance against anti-Semitism. Back in the summer, Starmer resolved a dispute with ex-staffers who left Labour over the issue of anti-Semitism within the Party. This action caused Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union and prominent ally of Corbyn, to threaten to withdraw funds from Labour.
Recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a body set up during the ‘New Labour’ era, published a report on the Party’s handling of anti-Semitism within its own ranks. The EHRC found that the Labour Party was responsible for ‘unlawful’ harassment and discrimination during Corbyn’s tenure as leader. Starmer described the release of the report a ‘day of shame’ for Labour and promised to act against members who deny or downplay the existence of anti-Semitism within the Party.
Starmer appeared to hope that Thursday the 29th of October would be the beginning of the end for anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. In his response to the EHRC’s report, Starmer asserted that Labour’s new policy on the matter would only be considered a success when ‘those who left’ the Labour Party ‘feel safe to return’ and when ‘Labour and anti-Semitism are no longer said in the same sentence’. To this end, Starmer promised that ‘zero tolerance on anti-Semitism would mean precisely that’.
The process did not go as Starmer hoped, however. Within moments of Starmer’s announcement, Corbyn stated in an interview that, in his view, the media ‘dramatically overstated’ the problem of anti-Semitism within Labour.
The General Secretary of the Labour Party was quick to act on this development and took the unprecedented move to suspend Corbyn’s membership. No other Labour Party leader has been suspended from the Party, and Corbyn was Labour leader just a few months ago.
Len McCluskey again took a stance against Starmer on this issue. In fact, he was joined by seven trade unions who issued a joint statement in which ‘serious concerns’ over Corbyn’s suspension were expressed. Corbyn has vowed to contest his suspension and has since been active in the Commons speaking on the subject of the treatment of the Rohingya people by Myanmar.
Divides over Brexit
While the divides in the Conservative Party over the issue of Brexit were smoothed over in 2019, Europe still poses a problem to Labour, though less so than last year.
Some in Labour are still bitter over Starmer’s push for the Party to adopt an overtly pro-Remain stance in the 2019 general election. Diane Abbott, in an interview with BBC Newsnight, said that Starmer had a ‘project of his own’ to become the leader of the Labour Party, and hinted that he pushed for the Party to adopt a Remain stance in order to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.
Ian Lavery, another key ally of Corbyn within the Party, stated that it brought ‘tears of anger’ to his eyes to see Starmer shift Labour’s policy after campaigning so long for Remain. Lavery was among Labour’s most prominent Eurosceptics and promised in an appearance on BBC’s Question Time in 2017 that Labour wouldn’t support a second referendum.
The 2019 general election may well have gone differently for Labour if Starmer’s push towards a more pro-Remain stance had failed. However, if they had won that election then it would be Corbyn, and not Starmer, who was leader of the Labour Party.
There is time, over the next four years, for Labour’s Brexit wounds to heal. After all, the Conservative Party went from being bitterly divided over Europe to rallying around Boris Johnson in the space of a year. The Covid-19 pandemic might well make this process easier for Labour, given how Brexit has now been pushed off the front page.