Westminster watch: Four potential political scenarios to watch for in 2022
A new year has dawned on Westminster and 2022 is set to be another wild year in the world of British politics. With Boris Johnson suffering from the mid-term blues, Covid raging and Brexit far from settled there are bound to be many dramatic twists and turns this year.
Here are four potential political scenarios to look for in 2022.
May local elections lead to Tory no confidence vote in Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson limped into 2022 after a series of scandals severely dented his personal popularity with the electorate and his standing in the Tory party. The Tories consistently trail Labour in the polls by around eight points and the Prime Minister’s approval rating is worse than at any other point in his premiership.
Johnson has always had a transactional relationship with Conservative MPs and he will only remain in favour as long as he continues to be an election winner. His unwillingness to build up a strong base of allies on the Tory backbenches means that he will likely be turfed out if the public finally turn against him.
He is now getting dangerously close to that point and the May local elections could provide a turning point for the Prime Minister. If the Tories get thoroughly trounced, and the party continues to trail Labour in national polls, then enough backbench MPs may send letters to the 1922 Committee chair to call for a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership.
Rishi Sunak’s star falls
Covid turned Rishi Sunak into a bonafide political star and made him the frontrunner to succeed Johnson as leader of the Conservative party. His charismatic addresses to the nation, along with his obvious intelligence, helped make him the most popular politician in the country early in the pandemic.
What also propped up his flawless poll ratings were the many billions he spent paying 11.7m people’s wages in 2020 and 2021. His “whatever it takes” attitude meant that generous economic support was provided for employees and businesses, leading to a peacetime record Budget deficit of £320bn in 2020-21.
He’s now made it very clear that it will soon be time to make “tough choices” and to claw this back some of this spending. This will begin in the form of a hike to National Insurance in April and more tax rises will follow in 2023. The chancellor may find himself far less popular as he turns off the spending taps and could see his position as heir apparent to the throne usurped by foreign secretary Liz Truss.
The UK triggers Article 16 and suspends Northern Ireland Protocol
Truss will soon start work on negotiations with the EU over how to better implement the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, after talks stalled in 2021. Talks over the protocol have been at a standstill for months, after the UK and EU both proposed changes to reduce checks going on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland still follows EU customs union and single market rules, unlike the rest of the UK, post-Brexit in order for a hard border to be avoided with the Republic of Ireland.
The UK thinks there should essentially be no border checks on goods made in Great Britain that are intended for use in Northern Ireland, while Brussels still wants to maintain some to ensure unauthorised products do not enter its single market through the backdoor.
Boris Johnson has consistently threatened to trigger Article 16 and suspend the protocol entirely if Brussels does not rewrite the protocol, which would lead to a complete breakdown of the UK-EU relationship. While the Prime Minister will continue to use this threat as a barganing chip, it now feels there is a landing zone for a final deal to be done.
Labour heads into 2023 with a large lead in the polls
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has finally cracked through Johnson’s shield of popularity and has steered his party to a significant poll leads over the Tories. While Labour will be rejoicing that it is finally making headway with the public, the party should not get complacent.
Opposition parties tend to have big leads at this point in a parliamentary term and it usually does not last until the next election. Labour finally has the attention of the public, but Starmer will need to consistently land attacks on the Prime Minister and continue to flesh out a vision of a future Labour government in 2022.
Starmer is making the right noises at the moment – particularly around economic aspiration – but he will need to find an extra gear when launching attacks on a Prime Minister that is a proven election winner.