If a week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson once said, then what on earth was 2022? Rishi Sunak started the year as Chancellor, spent a strange summer on the backbenches, and returned to Downing Street with the top job by Christmas.
In an exhausting and traumatic 12 months the UK witnessed the farcical downfall of two Prime Ministers, the death of the Queen, the invasion of Ukraine, partygate, Pincher-gate, tractorgate, stagflation, widespread strike action and a near financial crisis. In light of all this, I think it is more than fair to say “good riddance” to 2022.
Rishi Sunak will now try to carve out a clear vision for his premiership in 2023, while also improving the Tories’ poll ratings. City A.M. brings you five key developments to watch in Westminster throughout 2023.
Can Rishi Sunak keep control of his backbenchers?
The Prime Minister starts 2023 in a relatively weak position, with several different groups of Tory backbenchers already pulling him in different policy directions. Party discipline is poor with many disaffected Boris Johnson and Liz Truss loyalists already unwilling to get behind Sunak.
Sunak has been able to keep things relatively quiet in his first two months as he has focussed on putting out fires, however he may find 2023 troublesome as he is forced to make tough decisions. A backbench revolt has already scuppered his plans to enshrine a house building target in law and you can expect more U-turns now that unruly backbenchers whiff potential weakness.
Sunak will soon have to come forward with a clear legislative agenda for his premiership and Westminster wags will be looking out for all signs of internal dissent against policies that could split the party and imperil his premiership.
Will the recession be as deep as predicted?
Next year’s economic conditions will largely frame the success, or failure, of Sunak’s next 12 months. The UK is likely already in a recession, with economists expecting a second consecutive quarter of negative GDP growth in Q4. The Bank of England (BoE) expects the recession to last a full two years, while the government’s budgetary watchdog predicts it will be a little shorter.
This will lead to increased unemployment next year, while inflation stays well above the BoE’s target range. If the downturn is worse than expected then Sunak will likely come under heavy pressure as the public loses even more trust in the Tories.
The Prime Minister is desperately hoping that the economy fares better than predicted, which would give him more space to impose his will on the Tory party and to set the political agenda. Sunak would also be able to chalk up a better-than-expected economic performance to his own actions, even if it is now out of his control.
Can Sir Keir Starmer sell himself to the public?
The Labour leader will go into 2023 looking like a Prime Minister-in-waiting, with his party leading most polls by 20+ points. This is largely thanks to the capitulation of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and the associated Tory psychodrama, however Starmer has also done an impressive job of reviving the Labour party.
He has begun to outline a credible, pro-business social democratic platform and has shown he will do whatever it takes to detoxify the Labour brand after 12 miserable years of opposition. The fact that private donors and big business are becoming friendlier with Labour’s leadership should also be taken as a positive sign of the party’s electorability.
However, public polling and empirical evidence from focus groups reveal that the electorate is not exactly enamoured with Starmer personally. Most opinion polls this year showed more people disapproved than approved of his leadership, while the most recent YouGov poll gave him a +3 rating.
While the public appear to be sick of the Conservatives, it will be up to Starmer this year to convince the electorate to choose him and Labour instead. We will get a good look at how he is faring in May.
The 2023 local elections
The first major electoral test of Sunak’s premiership will be the set of local elections on 4 May next year. There will be elections for more than 200 councils across England in what could be the last local challenge before the next General Election.
Sunak is untested as a national campaigner and will be forced to engage with voters in almost every corner of England. Results that will be particularly scrutinised will be councils in traditional Labour areas in the North, the so-called Red Wall, that turned blue in 2019. Pundits will also keep a close eye on some of the Home Counties constituencies that drifted toward Labour and the Lib Dems through Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Expect serious pressure to come onto Sunak if the Tories suffer a heavy swing against them in the local elections. Starmer also needs a large Labour swing to quell questions around his personal electability.
Will Boris Johnson be found guilty in parliament’s partygate probe?
A real throwback, but expect partygate to once again be at the top of the news cycle at various times in 2023. The House of Commons’ privileges committee is investigating whether the ex-Prime Minister misled parliament over the Downing Street parties scandal.
Johnson said on many occasions in the House of Commons that there were no Covid breaches in Downing Street, however this was emphatically proven to be false. Johnson argues that he did not intentionally mislead parliament as he thought this argument was true when he said it.
The committee is in the process of collecting evidence and will soon hold hearings, with Johnson expected to attend. The Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP could be forced to stand down as an MP if the committee rules against him.