This year in UK politics is likely to be a turbulent one, with plenty of upcoming challenges.
By Dewi Morris | Political Editor
Dealing with COVID-19.
With no surprise, this upcoming year will likely be dominated by the governments’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Scrutiny of both the devolved governments’ and UK Government’s response to COVID-19 has dominated politics for over six months. How restrictions, curfews, lockdowns, and eventually vaccines will be implemented will perhaps be the biggest challenge to governments across the UK this year.
In Cardiff of course, the response to the pandemic is devolved to the Welsh Government who have implemented additional restrictions across the whole of Wales on September 22. Six counties in the South East also have local lockdowns in place.
Testimony to government response will be how society may react to further restrictions. Some MPs argued the public should call the police on their neighbours if they break lockdown rules, and a proportion of the public would agree. On the other extreme, ‘anti-maskers’ are angered by curbs on social life imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus. There is an argument that COVID-19 is here to stay and so we should learn to live with it. How restrictions will balance limiting the virus with justification for its effects on mental health and welfare is another challenge.
An extra question is, of course, how restrictions will be balanced with the economy. Furlough, while keeping countless businesses afloat during lockdown, is by no means sustainable in the long run. How the UK Government will end the job retention scheme, while balancing the need for restrictions, and the loss of earnings is another political minefield for the Government to manoeuvre.
While still unknown, vaccines could be ready as soon as November at the best, during 2021 at a more likely outcome, or at a worst-case scenario vaccines may fail to pass safety testing at all. However, if we are to assume the likelihood that vaccines may become available in about six months time, then how the UK will be vaccinated, and who will be eligible at first, will be a huge question for government to debate.
On top of the complications coronavirus has brought to politics this year, it has been rumoured that Boris Johnson may be planning to leave his position as Prime Minister in the new year. Allegations have also emerged that Boris Johnson went on a ‘secret holiday’ to Perugia, Italy on September 11-14, however Downing Street has denounced the claims as “completely untrue.”
A YouGov poll on September 21, shows only 27% of the public approve of the UK Government’s record to date – a sharp decline since March 23, when support was at a level of 52%. It seems consistent government U-turns over their response to the pandemic and its implications has damaged the UK’s trust.
While the news has been focused on the pandemic for months, Brexit will increasingly demand attention, as October 15 (the deadline for the UK-EU agreement on trade) looms closer.
The controversial Internal Market Bill, which was voted through the House of Commons despite breaking international law, has kickstarted the re-emergence of Brexit in the news; rest assured Brexit will be a defining feature of UK politics this year.
The UK is no longer a member of the EU and has not been since January, but it is still in the EU’s single market and customs union until the end of the transition period. Despite being 8 months through the 11-month transition period, the UK is seemingly nowhere closer to establishing the rules of a new relationship with the EU.
The transition period ends on December 31. It cannot be extended as the deadline for extension has passed. On New Years Day, 2021, the UK will drop out of the EU’s single market and customs union either with or without a deal.
October 15 is the date of an EU summit, and the deadline Boris Johnson has announced a deal must be reached by for it to be implemented before the end of the transition period. Meaning there are only a few weeks for a deal to be agreed upon between the UK and the EU.
A no-deal scenario is becoming increasingly likely, and how the Government will deal with the effects of such a possibility will be another matter to look out for this year.
The Irish border is one more major issue in the Brexit negotiations. The Republic of Ireland remains a part of the EU and therefore how goods will travel between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is still being negotiated.
In 2018, Theresa May proposed the ‘Irish Backstop’ however this was not supported by her MPs. Boris Johnson has instead negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol, which became part of the withdrawal agreement. However, the Internal Market Bill threatens to overturn this and establish checks at the Irish border which would break the Good Friday Agreement.
How the Government negotiates issues along the 310-mile border will be a major political subject this year. It questions Britain’s commitment to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland as well as the UK’s reputation. Theresa May has claimed that the Government is “acting recklessly and irresponsibly” in regard to the Internal Market Bill, and claims the Government did not “really understand what it was signing up to when it signed the Withdrawal Agreement.”
Senedd Cymru/ Welsh Parliament elections
In May, the Senedd election will take place.
For the first time individuals above the age of 16 will be able to vote. Each registered voter will have two votes, one constituency vote (to elect an MS to represent their constituency using a ‘first past the post’ system – the same as in a general election). And one vote for a regional MS, (Wales is split into five regions. The regional member vote uses a system based on proportional representation to elect four MSs for each region).
Since the last election in May 2016, the political landscape has altered dramatically.
Since March, it would seem awareness of devolution in Wales has increased greatly due to Wales’ response to the pandemic. In June, the Welsh public preferred the Welsh Government’s handling of COVID-19 over the UK Government’s. Could this play to Welsh Labour’s advantage?
With the highest ever recorded share of the Welsh electorate in favour of independence, reaching 26% in August, and the first Senedd debate on independence in July, could this translate to a rise in votes for Plaid Cymru?
In December, the general election saw the Conservatives turning some traditional Labour constituencies in Wales blue, could this be expected to result in more seats for the Welsh Conservatives in May?
Will the Brexit Party and UKIP be eliminated this year, as mostly single-issue parties? Or will the Brexit Party’s campaign to abolish the Senedd –despite being largely an unpopular stance in Wales, shape the election?
The polls predict Labour in the lead, followed by the Conservatives and then Plaid Cymru. The latest Welsh Political Barometer reads as such:
|Constituency vote:||Regional Vote:|
Plaid Cymru: 24%
Brexit Party: 4%
Liberal Democrats: 3%
Plaid Cymru: 23%
Abolish the Assembly: 4%
Brexit Party: 4%
Liberal Democrats: 3%
However, public opinion can change dramatically in seven months, especially considering the fast-pace of 2020 politics. With the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit, and the state of the union, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all now have major parties rooting for the devolved nations to leave the UK, it really could not be predicted what political climate Wales may find itself in by next May.
Scottish Parliament elections
The Scottish Parliament elections will also be held in May 2021. This election will be crucial and could accelerate the possibility of another Scottish independence referendum if it results in another SNP Government.
Since the first Scottish independence referendum in 2014 Scotland has voted to remain in the EU and is now being taken out of the EU as part of the UK. Nicola Sturgeon says this is a mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum. In the SNP’s manifesto for the 2019 general election, the party promised to campaign for a second referendum to take place during 2020. The campaign was however paused in March due to the pandemic.
In January, the Scotland (Referendums) Bill became law, meaning that the Scottish Parliament could hold referendums on devolved issues without needing permission from the UK Government. However, it is debated whether Holyrood or Westminster have powers over the Union. Either way, the question of Scottish independence will shape the campaign leading up to the Scottish Parliament elections in May.
This would likely have profound implications for the rest of the UK, igniting further debate on independence for Wales, and re-unification with Ireland for Northern Ireland.