2021 was a momentous year politically, in terms of public health, and in terms of the economy.
It was also the year which showed us how unpredictable the world can be – and in particular the world of politics. In September, Johnson reshuffled his cabinet; and this reshuffle was described by the FT as displaying “considerable confidence as he cut away what he regarded as dead wood and promoted potential rivals.” Just 3 months later, in the wake of the sewage scandal, Johnson’s failed attempt to rip up the Commons standards procedures and legalise corruption, and the resulting loss of the ‘safe’ seat in North Shropshire, the newspapers were full of talk of rebellion by both the one-nation Tories and the extreme right.
Given the obvious difficulty of making predictions in such a volatile world, is there anything useful we can say about the future?
There are a few things that we can be certain of:
- Either Boris Johnson will lead the Conservative party into the next election or he will not;
- Either the Conservative party will win more votes than its nearest rival or it will not; and
- Either one party will have an outright majority or none will.
In principle that gives us eight possible futures. In practice, however, some of these eight are quite similar to each other and there remain five clearly distinct futures for the UK. Several of these possibilities are a distinct improvement on the status quo.
The five key possibilities are illustrated here and explained below.
First, let us consider what could happen if there is an outright majority for the largest party at the next election. This could arise in several ways.
It is possible that Boris Johnson will continue to lead the Conservatives into the next election, and that his campaign will be successful. In this case, he would have cemented his position – and on the evidence of last year, he will continue to remove all checks and balances on his power. For 99% of the UK population – or even a greater proportion than that – this would not represent a good outcome.
Equally, the Conservative party may decide that Johnson has become an electoral liability and replace him with somebody ‘new.’ Of course, a new Prime Minister would introduce a shift in policy direction, but those who appear to be the front runners are all from the extreme right, so, again, this would not be a good outcome.
And, whether the Conservative party sticks with Boris Johnson or elects a new leader, there is also a possibility that another party would win the outright majority – almost certainly the Labour Party. In this case, there is the potential for a significant change in policy direction and a reversal in the dismal performance – in economic terms, in terms of the health of the nation and in terms of the state of democracy – that the Conservative government has delivered.
And, of course, there may not be an outright majority for any party.
If the Labour Party were to become the largest single party but without a majority, there would almost certainly be a Progressive Alliance, and again this would result in a very significant policy change, with the potential for great benefit for the majority of the population.
On the other hand, the Conservatives might become the largest single party but without an outright majority – in other words the other parties, together, would have a majority. In that case, an interesting question arises: would some of the other parties choose to ally with the Conservatives as the Liberal Democrats did in 2010, or would a Progressive Alliance still be possible?
The first possibility, which we have called an ‘unholy alliance’ might still represent some improvement on the status quo – the Liberal Democrats did probably manage to moderate some of Cameron and Osborne’s most extreme policies after 2010 – but it would not produce a reversal in direction.
The second possibility would probably resemble the type of progressive alliance which would arise if Labour were the single largest party, but power would be shared more with other parties, and the stability of the coalition might be slightly less. Nevertheless this possibility would also offer a genuine chance of improvement.
Of these five possibilities, three offer the possibility of much-needed improvement in UK politics whereas the other two represent a continuation – and possibly even a strengthening – of the current policy direction.
Given the still fairly low probability of an outright Labour majority, it may be that the best hope for change is from a Progressive Alliance – and the evidence of recent by-elections suggests both that there is a voter appetite for such change and that activists on the ground are capable of delivering large swings. If we can maintain that recent momentum, there is a real prospect of positive change.
We therefore have much greater grounds for optimism than we had in September; but given how high the stakes are, there is no room for complacency.
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