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20 December 2021
329: A guide to 2022: 10 key issues
As we all look forward to 2022, what can we expect from politics and across Parliament?
Stuart Thomson, Head of Public Affairs, and Aaron Nelson, Senior Associate, specialising in Public Law, make some predictions…
- No changes at the top: despite his current predicament, Boris Johnson is likely to remain in charge. The Teflon may be wearing thin but he has an undoubted resilience. The known unknowns aside, such as the outcome of the Party Gate inquiry, the PM’s biggest challenge is his apparent detachment from a large part of his parliamentary party. A lot of his MPs have simply lost faith which makes his position more precarious. Keir Starmer too is not going anywhere. His internal battles will continue but, over time, he is improving the party’s position in the polls. As long as that continues then he will be safe.
- More tensions over Covid regulations: It now seems inevitable that Q1 of 2022 will be dominated by the impact of the Omicron variant, with renewed pressures on the NHS and public services, difficulties for business and industry – particularly those which struggle under social distancing – and consequent economic impacts pressures. Perhaps, we think, the public will be willing to batten down the hatches through another winter of restraint, hoping it’s the last, but we think the real test will be if yet another variant arises in 2022. Backbench Tories have already revolted in increasing numbers about new civil restrictions: these, they say, cannot be justified on the basis of an ongoing public health emergency, and we must learn to live with the virus. We expect 2022 will see ongoing tensions between the authoritarian and libertarian wings of the party.
- BBC battles: If the appointment of Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary meant one thing then it was even more pressure on the BBC would be applied. The recent newspaper headlines suggesting that the BBC was to blame for the pressure on the PM over parties/work gatherings, demonstrates that the government believes that there is mileage in continued BBC bashing. The review of the Charter may be a little way off but everyone is already positioning themselves in advance.
- Post-Brexit negotiations will continue throughout 2022: Meetings between Brexit Minister Lord Frost and EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol became a regular event in 2021, but the gap between the two sides remains ‘significant’. While the UK continues to maintain that it could invoke Article 16 – potentially suspending parts of the deal – we think it’s unlikely that will happen, although it is perhaps more likely now Liz Truss has replaced Frost. More likely, checks will be delayed, grace periods will be extended, cans will be generally kicked down roads. And, of course, it’s bound to be good news for pork and cheese producers.
- COP 26 conclusions: The UK holds the presidency until late 2022. It will want to demonstrate that progress has been made, so expect a number of announcements. The recently passed Environment Act does give the government more power to make changes, such as over single-use plastics, so new announcements may not be a direct consequence of COP 26 agreements but will focus on the government’s commitment to Net Zero.
- Introduction of a tougher Online Safety Bill: The government’s first draft Bill, published in May 2021, suggested imposing a ‘duty of care’ on websites to remove harmful or illegal content and protect children, but largely left it to the tech giants themselves to police, with oversight from media regulator Ofcom. But a new parliamentary report into the Bill calls for Ofcom to set much more explicit standards, and have greater powers to investigate and fine big tech firms. It also recommends the creation of new criminal offences including of promoting violence against specific groups (including women and the disabled), and knowingly distributing seriously harmful misinformation, content which promotes self-harm and ‘cyber-flashing’. We think it likely the government will adopt at least some of these recommendations in a revised Bill, introduced later this year.
- The Lords will continue to grow: Bit of an open goal, perhaps, given the recent trend. But certainly we predict that there will be no progress on the long-overdue reforms to reduce the size of the House of Lords. The Lords now number over 800 – arguably the largest continuously active political chamber in the world (China’s National People’s Congress only meets once a year) – despite the Chamber having capacity for only about 250. Successive governments and numerous reports have recommended a reduction in numbers, most recently to 600 Members, and yet every year the Government appoints more – last summer, the Prime Minister enobled another 36.
- ‘Subsidy Wars’ between the devolved administrations and Westminster: Prior to Brexit, government support for business was largely controlled via the EU state aid regime: the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast were in the same boat as Westminster. But, post-Brexit, the UK Government enacted the UK Internal Market Act 2020 which made the subsidy law a matter for Westminster only. So, now, the SNP in Holyrood cannot provide grants to support Scottish shipbuilders; or Plaid Cymru/Labour to Welsh farmers; or Stormont to Northern Irish food processors, at least without the UK government’s consent. We expect much to be made of this by nationalist politicians: ‘Is this what was meant by taking back control?’
- Levelling Up? The promised White Paper will be delivered but whether it will focus on hanging baskets or reorganisation is the big question. Local government reorganisation comes in and out of fashion. The Westminster government is often put off from English reorganisation by the complexity, cost and timescale. But this government likes Mayors and wants to give generally Conservative voting shires more control so a reorganisation should not be dismissed. But levelling up could also be relevant to the cohesion and future of the Union as well so could feature in the White Paper.
- Standards in public life? Regardless of the outcome of investigations into Downing Street parties / work events, flat refurbishments and potential changes to the standards, transparency and conflict of interest rules, there will be an unquenched thirst for stories related to work outside of Parliament – for both MPs and Peers. The reaction to Owen Paterson, and other still-serving members, as well as the PM’s initial approach, will mean that the issue of standards will remain in the public eye. It may suit the government for all politicians to be viewed in the same way but it doesn’t help politics or Parliament.