MPs will descend on Westminster next week as parliament returns from after the six-week summer recess. Boris Johnson will be lamenting that the events of the past month in Afghanistan have ensured little time for rest or recuperation and things will be no easier for the Prime Minister as autumn begins.
Here are four key issues that Johnson will have to grapple with in the coming months.
Afghanistan will continue to be high on the news agenda as parliament resumes next week, with the fallout from the UK’s response still making waves.
Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Afghan citizens eligible for asylum in Britain were left stranded in the country after the UK ended its evacuation earlier this week. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab was yesterday grilled for almost two hours on the crisis and today went to Doha to assess further evacuation efforts.
He said he felt “a responsibility” to get these people to the UK and that he watches “with great interest to what is happening at Kabul airport”. Raab is under increasing pressure thanks to leaks from the Foreign Office over the timing of his holiday during the fall of Afghanistan and a public slanging match with defence secretary Ben Wallace.
The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has appeared to escape the crisis relatively unscathed and will be able to concentrate his political efforts on the implementation of the Afghanistan refugee scheme. Labour has criticised the government’s 20,000-person target for the resettlement scheme, however this is unlikely to make much of a dent. YouGov figures show there is little appetite amongst Britons for much many more Afghani refugees to be resettled in the UK.
Johnson will also have to quickly make decisions about the future of aide to Afghanistan and whether to implement economic sanctions on the country if the Taliban continues to commit widespread human rights abuses.
Downing Street confirmed this week that it would push ahead with plans to mandate vaccine passports for things like night clubs and mass events from the end of this month. The plan was announced by Johnson in July, after a taskforce into Covid certification led by Michael Gove initially panned the idea of mandatory vaccine passports.
Johnson’s initial announcement sparked a wave of recriminations from libertarian Tory backbenchers, with many vowing to vote against the measure in parliament. This is particularly crucial as Labour and all other opposition parties have indicated they will not support mandatory vaccine passports for large events if it came to a House of Commons vote.
The Tories currently have a 76-seat majority, meaning that less than 40 rebellious Conservative MPs could provide Johnson with his first Commons defeat since the 2019 election. Judging on the initial reactions from the backbenches, it is likely that this number could be reached by a rebel group led by Tory MPs like Steve Baker and Iain Duncan Smith.
Of course, there is always the possibility that vaccine passports are scrapped and never come to a House of Commons vote. It was originally thought by many pundits that mandatory double vaccination to enter night clubs was only a ploy to get young people to take the vaccine. The idea may well be binned or scaled back in the coming weeks now vaccine take-up among under-30s has drastically improved.
Winter Covid surge
Covid cases have decreased for the past seven days and almost 80 per cent of adults are double jabbed, but the threat from the virus is still very real. Government scientists are predicting cases will likely begin to rise again as schools return from the summer break, with former Sage adviser professor Neil Ferguson warning that 100,000 to 150,000 cases a day would put serious pressure on the NHS.
This is on top of an expected natural increase in cases as we get into the colder months of the year where conditions will be ripe for the virus to spread quickly. The Prime Minister has promised in the past that the removal of all Covid restrictions would be irreversible, however there are a number of caveats to this.
A surge in hospitalisations, or the emergence of a a new vaccine resistant variant, that puts pressure on the health service could see the reintroduction of some restrictions in winter. The government is pressing to soon begin a booster vaccine campaign in the coming month to give the most vulnerable their third jabs, which could help England maintain its current level of freedoms.
Glasgow will host the landmark Cop26 climate summit from 1 November, with Johnson hoping to boost his international profile with a renewed global agreement. The government is hoping for increased commitments on net zero from the world’s largest economies, with Cop26 President Alok Sharma saying the consequences of failure would be “catastrophic” for the globe.
Planning for the UN conference has been beset by problems since it was postponed for 12 months, with rumours swirling earlier this summer that the event would be forced online. A government spokesperson today insisted the event was “on track” and that all attendees would be vaccinated before attending.
A successful conference could help give Johnson a boost to his international standing after already hosting the G7 conference earlier this year. It was thought in Downing Street that the conference could also provide stronger links between Johnson and US President Joe Biden, however this could be up in flames after recent cross-Atlantic disagreements over the Afghanistan crisis.