2022 was a year of unprecedented chaos within government. The manic mayhem at the apex of politics gifted Britons three prime ministers, four chancellors, four home secretaries and five education secretaries. It has not been a good look for the Conservative party, whose preferred calling card with the electorate is a reputation for stable and predictable governance.
So as the country staggers wearily into 2023, there remain big questions over whether Rishi Sunak can meaningfully fix the country’s “permacrisis”.
Might the industrial unrest subside? Can the EU budge over the Northern Ireland Protocol? Will so-called “lefty lawyers” relax their activism over the Rwanda scheme? And what of the much-anticipated “partygate” inquiry report?
Naturally, it is far easier to ask questions about the upcoming year than to answer them. The events of 2022 underlined that political predictions are, after all, a mug’s game.
Back in December 2021, Boris Johnson’s future looked shaky, but far from terminal. Reports of boozy Downing Street social gatherings provided a focal point for public anger, but few MPs were contemplating regicide at this point. And while Liz Truss was understood to have leadership ambitions, foresight of her rapid rise and fall was beyond even the most consummate soothsayer.
But here at Politics.co.uk we have dusted off the crystal ball nonetheless. According to our best instincts, here’s what might be in store for 2023:
Sunak rolls the pitch
Rishi Sunak’s greatest political asset is that he is not on the hook personally for the economic cataclysm incited by the “mini-budget”. His own criticism of Trussonomics over the summer bestowed upon him some otherwise elusive fiscal credibility. He enjoys a higher approval rating than the Conservatives as a whole and is more trusted on the economy than Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
But as the Liz Truss interregnum moves further and further into the past, Sunak will need to set out his own positive pitch as prime minister. He needs to prove that his brand of “grown up”, “boring politics” can yield results, economically and electorally — especially to those in his party who still harbour sympathies for Johnson’s boosterish “cakeism” or even Truss’ ideological zeal.
The consensus appears to be no election until late 2024, a schedule which leaves plenty of room for Sunak to gather political momentum. There are discussions in Downing Street about Sunak setting out a detailed vision early in the new year, designed to tell the country more about his long-term ambition for the country. The proposed speech, expected before the Spring Budget on 15 March 2023, would also be a timely challenge to Keir Starmer, who is under pressure himself to set out a more detailed policy stall.
But talk of “Tory vision” notwithstanding, Sunak will face internal pressure to deliver on key legislation. Several key bills, including the transport bill, the NI protocol bill, the schools bill and the online safety bill, had their parliamentary progress stalled through 2022. Legislation is also expected following Sunak’s December announcement on migration.
There is a sense within the Conservative party that the government needs to challenge Labour to take a stand on legislative issues, countering Starmer’s preference for sitting back and waiting for the government to blow itself up. A busier legislative timetable in the new year would test the togetherness of the Labour party, following a year when Sir Keir arguably had a free pass through events.
The Conservative psychodrama continues…
Sunak’s biggest problem, as is so often the case for Conservative prime ministers, is his own MPs. As the formation of the Priti Patel-backed Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) has shown, Sunak is struggling to show he has a mandate within his party. A Conservative “award squad” of Johnson loyalists and Trussite also-rans has already formed, with the PM facing concerted challenges on every decision, be it over personnel or policy. Former party chair Jake Berry and former levelling up Secretary Simon Clarke have both shown penchants for backbench activism following their cabinet-snubbing by Sunak. Expect them to make further noise into 2023.
The voting patterns of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Theresa May will also be worth watching. Johnson and Truss were readying a rebellion over onshore wind before Sunak’s U-turn, and May has already criticised Sunak’s plans for the Modern Slavery Act 2016. Having three PMs on the backbenches is unprecedented in modern politics; Johnson and Truss in particular may prove to be political wildcards, throwing their weight behind various backbench rebellions to maximise Sunak’s political pain.
It is a reminder that while legislative activism could test the Labour party’s standing, Sunak may also risk undermining his own authority.
A cabinet reshuffle?
Of course, Sunak will have to at some point face up to the reality of a disunited party.
His response through the backend of 2022 was to welcome all wings of his party into a “cabinet of all the talents”; Suella Braverman was appointed as home secretary, James Cleverly as foreign secretary and Therese Coffey as environment secretary. But this has not silenced dissenting voices on the backbenches.
If we do get a more detailed vision from Sunak in the year, there is the potential that this could prepare the ground for a cabinet reshuffle. There is some sense that Sunak’s desire to be seen as “fresh” has been hurt by his cabinet’s absorption of Truss’ own top team.
In this instance, rising stars of the party right like Kemi Badenoch will be retained, but Sunak loyalists like Mel Stride, Robert Jenrick and Victoria Atkins will be in line for a promotion. We can probably expect at least one reshuffle before an election in 2024 — and Sunak may ultimately decide that sooner is better when it comes to personnel changes.
More economic pain
There is also the unavoidable fact that Sunak’s political future is intimately tied to the UK’s economic prospects.
The good news is that, in its November monetary report, the Bank of England said it expected inflation to fall “sharply” from the middle of next year. This drop in already seems to have begun, with inflation recorded at 10.7 per cent in November, compared to 11.1 per cent in October.
However, figures released in December show that the economy contracted by 0.3% in the three months to September, more than anticipated. With negative growth and high inflation, it is clear that economic misery will weigh heavily on Sunak through much of 2023.
Energy bills are also expected to remain high next year as Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine continues. And with high interest rates informing skyrocketing mortgage bills and rents, Sunak will need to make progress before economic pain translates into an electoral drubbing for his party.
The “Edinburgh reforms” announced two weeks ago by chancellor Jeremy Hunt were designed to restore the UK’s competitive edge — but tangible economic impacts are expected to be slight. Nor do Hunt’s proposals signal a return to the “go for growth” strategy of Truss, a project to which many in his party are attached.
Sunak will need to prove, and prove quickly, that his high ratings for “trust” over the economy are warranted.
A spring of discontent
The new year will be kicked off with fresh rail strikes from January 3-4, and 6-7, in a continuation of industrial action underway since June; ambulance workers will then walk out on the 11th and 23rd of January, before nurses follow suit on the 18th and 19th.
As the industrial relations issue rolls on, the government will face pressure to be the first mover in an overdue resolution. However, Sunak and the cabinet are readying themselves to tough the strikes out, in hope that public opinion will turn decisively against the strikes through the festive period. There are also hopes within the government that as inflation falls, the demands for pay rises will lessen. Sunak told the liaison committee last week that the best way to help striking workers is to “get a grip and reduce inflation as quickly as possible”.
But while this will prove an intellectually and ideologically comforting position for the Conservative party, this contains a significant risk. For if public support for the strikes holds strong and action continues in February, the local elections in May could prove punishing.
Public attitudes towards Brexit will be another key indicator to watch. Over the past few months, industry representatives and civil society groups have become bolder in talking about post-Brexit arrangements. As time progresses, the Conservative party will find it more and more difficult to dismiss business critics as bitter Remainers.
The Brexit bad news stories are piling up. New research suggests our departure from the EU is increasing our food prices, former DEFRA secretary George Eustice said Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with Australia was “not actually very good” and a British Chambers of Commerce report found more than half (56%) of the BCC members have experienced problems complying with new rules.
Don’t expect Sunak to pursue a so-called “Swiss-style” deal with the EU, but pressure for a better trading relationship will amp up significantly as Britain dips into recession. The attitudes of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to a worsening situation will also be worth watching. No party wants the Brexit debate to return, but they may ultimately have no choice but to engage.
Deadlock in Northern Ireland
On the topic of Brexit, Sunak will be keen to make progress on the NI Protocol as we enter January.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been refusing to enter a power-sharing government since February because of issues with Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit positioning, which they say has instituted a border down the Irish Sea.
With the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement due in April, an important milestone in Northern Ireland’s political history, the government will be desperate to restore power-sharing procedures.
According to reports, the government has earmarked February as a soft deadline by which negotiations with the EU on the Protocol will be expected to have made progress. Because the current deadline for the restoration of a power-sharing executive is January 19th, it is therefore very likely that secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris will extend this for another 12 weeks until the 13th of April.
But if power-sharing is still not restored by April, an election will have to be called. The last election in May 2022 resulted in Sinn Féin becoming the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time. Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist communities are set for a significant year.
Planes on the way to Rwanda?
The High Court ruled last week that the government’s policy of removing asylum seekers to Rwanda is lawful. The court held that the home secretary had conducted a “thorough examination” of “all relevant generally available information” over the Rwanda scheme, the standard set for this type of exercise by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
But while the home office has been cleared by this court to send migrants to the African country, the two charities who brought the legal action, Care4Calais and Asylum Aid, have both said that they are looking at the possibility of an appeal.
With an appeal increasingly inevitable, expect the case to move to the Court of Appeal and potentially further still to the Supreme Court in 2023.
The timescale for a final resolution of the case is therefore unknown, but Braverman will have to wait a little while longer to see her dream of a plane taking off to Rwanda fulfilled.
And, unfortunately for the home secretary, action cannot be taken while an appeal is being prepared because of the interim measure issued by the European Court of Human Rights, which states that removal cannot take place “until 3 weeks after delivery of the final domestic decision in ongoing judicial review proceedings”.
The debate over “partygate” will rear its ugly head again in 2023 as an inquiry into whether former PM Boris Johnson misled parliament is expected to publish its findings.
The cross-party committee, chaired by Labour grandee Harriet Harman, formally launched the long-awaited investigation in June. Were it to find against Johnson it would amount to contempt of Parliament.
It is worth remembering that the prime minister was also issued a fine alongside Johnson for his role in partygate — something he will not want the public to be reminded of. In any case, the very discussion of partygate is electoral poison for the Conservative party; Sunak will be hoping the inquiry blows over quickly without leaving too much of a mark.
And what about Labour?
Keir Starmer has a tough task ahead in 2023. He will be expected to capitalise on his polling advantage as he looks to put any question as to a Sunak-fronted Conservative comeback to rest.
The Labour leader has already tried to seize the political momentum with high-profile announcements over “GB Energy” and Gordon Brown’s Constitutional Commission, but he still needs to outline a programme for government.
So might Sir Keir mirror Sunak’s comms strategy and opt for a large, policy-heavy speech early in the new year? Might a shadow cabinet reshuffle be the answer? Starmer is plainly under pressure from within his own party to be bolder; with a significant poll advantage established, many on his party’s left flank feel that now is the time for policy activism.
However, the Labour leader’s inner circle still fears that misplaced policy boldness might begin to scare voters won from the Conservatives after the Trussonomics experiment. It will be this familiar bind, between his party’s policy instincts and his own strategical inclination to sit back, that will decide the trajectory of Starmer’s 2023.
In lieu of a conclusion
After a year of unquantifiable chaos, insiders hope that Sunak’s unflashy “grown up” approach to governing will offer Britain some much-needed respite. A period of political quiet would be welcomed in many camps, both inside and outside Westminster.
However, only time will tell whether “boringness” will be enough to recast the political landscape in the Conservative party’s favour. As Sunak battles to re-explain what the Conservatives are for after a decade of government, everyone’s eyes will be on the polls as he rolls the pitch for a 2024 election. The prime minister will need to act quickly if he is to rectify a 25-point poll deficit.
But it also striking that several issues expected to drive the agenda in the new year are either entirely out of Sunak’s control or dependent on some form of negotiated settlement. Progress over strikes, the NI Protocol, the Rwanda scheme and the ongoing Conservative “psychodrama” will not just be up to the prime minister. In fact, movement on these contentious issues relies on the initiative of openly hostile actors first and foremost. It is a difficult place to be for a prime minister who has risen to power on the back of a reputation for problem-solving and delivery.
In the end, this may be evidence that the quiet optimism in the Sunak camp is, at this stage, misplaced. Like any embattled politician, the prime minister will be hoping for some good fortune as the country heads into 2023.