Blog: Coronavirus and Brexit will dominate new UK political year – Out-Law.com

Although in 2020 conferences will not meet in person, political agenda setting will be busier than ever and there is plenty for businesses to keep an eye on.

Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has dominated the headlines since March and it will continue to do so.

Whitehall departments and devolved administrations are in a frenzy of activity dealing with the reboot of the economy; preparing for a second wave occurs, and getting ready for a long, drawn out inquiry into the handling of the crisis.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is set to unveil his comprehensive spending review (CSR) in late October which will review all cash settlements across government, as well as design a roadmap for the repayment of many of the Covid-19 related schemes.

The unprecedented scale of the government’s spending is likely to lead to stringent cost reductions in some departments, new taxes, possibly in the tech sector, and potential stealth taxes implemented to recoup some costs quickly.

The CSR will also aim to deliver on many of the election pledges laid out on ‘levelling up’ the UK economy, public service reform and Britain’s international competitiveness.

This is the most important CSR in years, and officials across government have been working on department bids over the summer. Engagement in this process is always competitive, and making a strong, clear case for clients and sectors could be significant.

Brexit

The substance of a deal – if there is to be one – will be published or leaked in the autumn. Speculation continues to mount in Westminster on preparedness for a No Deal scenario. It is increasingly clear that Number 10’s view is that agreement will only be reached at a heads of government level with sign-off coming at the eleventh hour, but this is a gamble given the emphasis and remit given to chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier by the remaining EU member states.

With a sense of Brexit hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic, the autumn is set to be dominated by second guessing, posturing and intensive discussions on both sides of the channel.

Domestically, parliament is swinging into full Brexit legislation mode with bills before both houses on agriculture, trade, immigration and fisheries. With its 80-seat majority, the government will win the day on this legislation, but there could be some defeats, specifically in the House Of Lords which may cause embarrassment to the government benches.

Party conferences

The virtual conferences of all the political parties will be an important moment to understand the shifting sands of the political landscape in light of the pandemic. The Conservatives need to show they have the capacity to handle multiple generation-defining issues alongside the delivery of many of the pledges the party made in the election campaign of December 2019.

Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, will set out his vision of the direction of his party for the first time with many internal challenges remaining from the era of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. The  Labour conference will be less about new policies, and more about presenting the party as a credible opposition capable of holding the government to account.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is looking towards the Holyrood elections in May 2021 with a growing expectation that the next Scottish parliament will return an independence-supporting majority. Against this backdrop, the SNP will need to lay out some sense of a roadmap to independence, amidst internal splits over direction of travel and in the face of a UK prime minister who shows no sign of granting a second referendum any time in the foreseeable future.

Traditionally, conference season offers an informal setting for many sectors and businesses to engage and share thinking and ideas with decision makers. This will be much harder this year, but all parties will want to continue the dialogue, especially in light of the pandemic.

What does it all mean?

The main lesson from recent months has been that change is happening – and fast. Whether it be the swift economic package for Covid-19, the review of how Whitehall operates, or indeed the still-new political reality of having a majority government, there is an opportunity and an imperative to consider how to position messaging, engagement and influence with decision makers.

Businesses across multiple sectors should seek to understand and engage in the policy-making process, to gauge and manage political and reputational risk, and to get ahead of the major trends which will shape our future economy.

Written by Anthony Pickles

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