Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
The ground is shifting under British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will address his Conservative Party at its annual conference on Wednesday.
This is not just because several recent polls indicate that Mr. Johnson’s prime ministership may be losing momentum in England. In addition, far-reaching change may be taking place in devolved nations, especially the two where the impact of Brexit has been most keenly felt – Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, there is a new power-sharing deal in the Holyrood legislature between the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Greens, which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hopes will provide the pathway to the nation’s independence before the end of the decade. The next few years are likely to see increasing tension between London and Edinburgh over the terms of a new referendum.
In Northern Ireland, there was a remarkable LucidTalk opinion survey in August that points to the changing post-Brexit landscape there as well. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which reached its own power-sharing deal with the U.K. Conservatives in 2017 in Westminster, came in fourth in the poll at 13 per cent, a big fall-off from the first place it has secured in every Northern Irish election since 2003, whether in the Stormont or Westminster legislatures.
The nationalist Sinn Fein placed first in the survey, at 25 per cent, and if these figures are repeated at the next Stormont election in May, 2022, the party would secure the post of Northern Irish First Minister for the first time. This could be especially significant as Sinn Fein, which favours a united Ireland, is also leading many opinion surveys south of the border in the Republic of Ireland, too.
What these early straws in the wind may indicate is that the exceptional volatility of U.K. politics over the past decade and a half, which has included a series of shocks from the financial crisis and Brexit, is not yet over. This will worry Mr. Johnson and the Conservative government in Westminster, as a potentially tricky fall lies ahead.
The Prime Minister and his administration have suffered a sharp decline in some recent polls. Take the example of an Ipsos Mori survey, even before the Afghan foreign-policy debacle, which suggests Conservative voters in particular are becoming more pessimistic about the direction of the country, given concerns over higher inflation and spiralling public debt.
Just 27 per cent of those questioned said they had a favourable opinion of Mr. Johnson – his lowest rating since last October, when the United Kingdom was entering its second coronavirus lockdown. Moreover, optimism about the country’s prospects was lower than at any point since January, as the so-called “vaccine bounce” continued to ebb away.
To try to move from defence to offence this fall, U.K. ministers are planning a series of key announcements, including a comprehensive spending review. This will set the framework for multiyear public-sector spending in the period before the next election.
Mr. Johnson hopes that these and other big announcements will provide political momentum into 2022, and potentially help give a governing purpose to his administration in the absence of any coherent, defining signature issues other than leading the United Kingdom during the storm of the pandemic. However, a growing number of Conservatives are concerned by at least three sets of issues.
Firstly, the early signs that the Liberal Democrats are making headway in a number of traditional Conservative constituencies in the south of England. This was illustrated over the summer with the Chesham and Amersham by-election, which the Liberals won in a stunning victory in a seat previously only held by the Conservatives.
Secondly, the growing prospect of a new Scottish independence referendum, and the possibility of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland moving closer to such a plebiscite as well. Thirdly, there are fears that Labour, which is the largest single party in Wales and is running in second place in polls in England, will make gains.
In this more unpredictable landscape, any further pandemic-related lockdowns this winter would be further damaging for Mr. Johnson. The political pressure on him could reach a boiling point, given his prior commitment to the “irreversibility” of the easing of restrictions.
If so, there could be increased doubt in Westminster that he can survive in office until the next election, given that his approach to tackling the crisis is already seen by many as chaotic. When Mr. Johnson scored his huge election win in 2019, it was widely expected at the time that he could remain in office for much of the 2020s, yet the roller-coaster ride of his time in office means his term could end sooner in potentially ignominious circumstances.
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