Feeling resigned? 2018 will breathe fresh life into politics

Rachel Cunliffe
Follow Rachel
The Westminster community has been beaten into submission by 12 months of political rollercoasting (Source: Getty)

January 2017 began with the resignation of the UK’s ambassador to the EU.

In hindsight, this was perhaps the first crack in the “strong and stable” facade of the Theresa May administration.

Sir Ivan Rogers’ resignation letter to his staff was scathing about the Prime Minister’s vision, gameplan, and alleged naivety surrounding Brexit. “I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power,” he concluded.

Read more: Damian Green has resigned after pornography allegations

Rogers was an outlier at the time. With May enjoying a 13-point lead in the polls, unanimous Tory support, and the perception that she had a plan for Brexit, his comments were seen as bitter and pessimistic.

Since then, it has become progressively easier to speak truth to power, at least as much power as remains in Downing Street.

A year that started with the departure of our most important Brexit official has ended with the resignation of May’s right-hand man in the cabinet. First secretary of state Damian Green was fired on Wednesday night over a scandal concerning pornography allegedly found on his parliamentary computer a decade ago.

The less said about the details, the better. The point is that the loss of another cabinet minister – the third in two months after the high-profile departures of Michael Fallon and Priti Patel – has elicited little more than a shrug.

The Westminster community is exhausted, having been beaten into submission by 12 months of political rollercoasting.

Enduring a shock snap election with an even more shocking result and working through biggest constitutional overhaul in generations will have that effect.

So with that mind, I’ve been facing questions about whether we have anything to look forward to politically in 2018. And my answer is, yes: change.

The Brexit negotiations are, undoubtedly, going to get harder. If you thought an exit agreement was difficult to hash out, wait until trade talks start, with industries pitted against each other and the constant tussle between protecting what is good for business and the economy, and refusing to cede ground on sovereignty issues like regulations and immigration.

Trade deals are hard. They take work, and emotions run high. This isn’t about the technicalities of Brexit – it would be true in any setting – but we should be ready for it, and cut our officials some slack during the tougher moments.

But beyond Brexit, there is much to get excited about.

To counter the exhaustion of Westminster feuds and intrigues, there has been fresh energy injected into politics.

Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance has shifted the conversation. Young people came out in record numbers, and for the first time in years, their concerns are making front-page news. The housing crisis, the gig economy, pensions, education, and training are all hot topics.

It’s about time. After a vicious cycle of apathy, disengagement, and being ignored, interest and participation in politics are at record levels. This can only be a good thing. A healthy, functioning democracy requires an engaged electorate.

Yes, the unexpected wave of support for Corbyn and his seventies-style socialism is a worrying trend, but it has finally kickstarted a debate on the changing face of capitalism. A decade after the financial crisis, this is a long time coming.

Proponents of markets and enterprise should have been ready for the conversation. They weren’t. They were complacent. Now they are fighting back.

There is an opportunity to rethink capitalism for the age of digital progress and artificial intelligence, to have renewed conversations about globalism and technology.

There is also a chance for new voices to emerge.

May’s weakness in office may be to the country’s benefit – with few brave enough to topple her while the Brexit negotiations trudge on. The field is open. With no majority and fierce divisions in both major parties, there is the opportunity for compromise, cooperation, and for crossing party lines.

Michael Gove is making Britain’s environmental policy a priority, while Sajid Javid is taking millennials’ concerns seriously – both traditionally issues for the left.

Women in parliament, from Labour’s Jess Phillips to the Conservative Anne Milton, are stepping forward to challenge Westminster’s sexist culture and stand up for victims of harassment. Expect more of that in the next year.

Of course, much can go wrong. May’s arrangement with the DUP was tested almost to the point of destruction this month, and could yet collapse. There may be more sackings to come, as the waves of the sexual harassment scandal continue to break.

And while it’s hard to see how another snap election could happen, if it did, there is a real risk the country could end up with people in Downing Street who would rather destroy the City of London – and the UK economy – than let it flourish.

But if 2017 has degenerated into exhaustion, I believe 2018 will be the year in which we stop floundering in the might-have-beens of the referendum and its aftermath.

Rogers’ resignation was a warning we should have heeded. Green’s is a sign that it’s now time to move on.

Read more: Brexit sectoral analyses have been published and no one is impressed

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles