UK politics continues to progress at a rapid pace. From party conference season through to the Budget, recent weeks have seen numerous set piece announcements and developments from government and opposition alike. As Brexit deadlines loom ever larger and a deal yet to be agreed, there is an increasingly frenetic sense to events at Westminster.
With the government swamped and consumed by Brexit, elements within the Conservatives have become more vocal regarding the need for the party to present a wider policy agenda that addresses issues facing voters. In a highly provocative intervention, backbench MP Johnny Mercer (who is often accorded ‘rising star’ status) used a recent interview to claim that he wouldn’t now vote for the party if he wasn’t an MP. At the same time, centre-right policy think-tanks and groupings, such as Onward and the Centre for Policy Studies, have ramped up their output, putting forward a range of proposals to develop an attractive ‘retail offer’ for the party to present to voters.
In part, much of the concern and unease within Conservative ranks has been as a result a strong push from Labour – and the Shadow Chancellor, in particular – to set out a series of high-profile and eye-catching proposed policies. From proposals to increase employee ownership of businesses and the introduction of a four-day working week to large-scale nationalisation of key industries, John McDonnell is setting out a highly populist opposition programme – aimed squarely at capitalising on disenchantment among voters. It is telling that it has been McDonnell leading this charge, from Labour’s conference onwards. Rumours persist of a rift between Corbyn and McDonnell over the direction the party needs to take, but for the time being it is clear that the Shadow Chancellor is in the ascendancy.
Noises from within their own party and the opposition have clearly not gone unnoticed by either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor. From the PM’s speech at Conservative conference – where she announced the removal of the HRA borrowing cap on councils in order to boost housebuilding – to the Chancellor’s recent Budget, there has been a shifting of rhetoric away from deficit reduction towards ending the UK’s period of ‘austerity’. A Budget that confirmed a range of spending increases across health, defence, welfare and tackling cyber-crime represents a departure for the Conservatives and potentially marks a break with the rhetoric of the Cameron and Osborne era. By explicitly stating that austerity ‘was coming to an end’; that additional funding to ensure the smooth and effective roll-out of Universal Credit would be provided; and that PFI (and PF2) would be ended, Hammond indicated a shifting of priorities towards spending over deficit reduction, accepting the government is facing a new political reality. This was a very different approach to the Budgets we came to expect under the Osborne era.
All the while, desperate attempts continue by May and her team to secure a Brexit deal. Positive noises that a deal may be agreed in the very near future have been circulating. Arguably, the hard work begins from the point at which a deal is struck – and whether the Conservative Brexiteers, the DUP and Labour rebels will wear it. The Brexit process has been a long and torturous one (and plenty of detail is still to be decided), but in terms of whether a deal is struck or the UK enters ‘no deal’ territory, the next few weeks really are the crunch period.