December 21, 2016 By FTI Consulting
As the end of the year approaches, it’s almost difficult to believe that little more than half a year ago, David Cameron was Prime Minister and George Osborne was happily ensconced in office as Chancellor – a powerful and enduring partnership that defined the Conservative Party for more than a decade and spearheaded government for six years. If Harold Wilson’s quip about a week being a long time in politics is true, the past seven months are a millennium.
2016 has been a truly significant and memorable year for the Conservative Party – a year marked by success and disappointment, treachery and triumph, brewing schisms and hasty displays of kiss-and-make-upism.
Theresa May, one of Britain’s longest-ever serving Home Secretaries, became the new Conservative Party leader and second female Prime Minister in July in series of events that shocked Westminster and pleasantly surprised even her famously-loyal lieutenants. The swift handover of power came after David Cameron resigned following a humiliating defeat in the EU referendum, which saw 52% of the public support Brexit; defying the advice of the then-Prime Minister and Chancellor.
After a spirited battle with rivals Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, May secured the support of a clear majority of Conservative MPs in the second round of voting. Her clear lead inspired her remaining rival, Andrea Leadsom to pull out of the race. As such, a Conservative Party leadership race that could have run from June to September – and led to a summer of acrimony and division – resulted in a speedy coronation.
On her first day as Prime Minister, May wasted no time in unveiling an almost completely new look cabinet, departing from her predecessor’s ‘chumocracy.’
She took on a much tougher, more interventionist approach when sacking former members of Cameron’s top team including George Osborne, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan. Eurosceptics such as David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson were given the demanding task of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union. Modernisers such as Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Greg Clark were appointed to the Home Office and Departments of Education and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) respectively, indicating May’s desire to continue the domestic social reforms. She also promoted those close and loyal to her such as Damian Green who has been elevated to Work and Pensions Secretary, Chris Grayling to Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond to Chancellor and her trusted staff and friends to Number 10 including Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy who have worked with May since her days at the Home Office.
In her opening address outside Downing Street, May set out her vision as a “one nation” conservative and emphasised her commitment to social mobility and tackling “irresponsible behaviour in big business.” She also indicated her dedication to the creation of a comprehensive industrial strategy following the creation of her new, beefed-up Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
At her first Party conference as leader in October we learned that the government will trigger Article 50 by March 2017 and that the 1972 European Communities Act (ECA) will be repealed with a Great Repeal Bill in its place, replicating most EU legislation into UK law. May also sought to reclaim the centre ground and woo over any dissatisfied Labour votes by renaming Jeremy Corbyn’s party the new “nasty party.”
In November’s Autumn Statement last month, Philip Hammond acknowledged a “new chapter in our country’s history” and promised to build “an economy for everyone” with increased investment for innovation and infrastructure.
The Chancellor also took steps to address the Brexit debate, stating it brought into focus some of the key things the Government now needed to focus and address – the housing challenge, economic disparity and the productivity gap. He also used the economic forecasts – downgraded for 2017 but still showing an expectation of more growth than major European nations – to show the strength and resilience of the UK economy.
In light of these downgraded forecasts, the government announced new – and somewhat vague – fiscal rules which marked a further departure from a Cameron era in which deficit-reduction measures were prioritised above all else. First, public finances should be returned to balance as early as possible with cyclically-adjusted borrowing below 2% by the end of the parliament; second, public net debt must be falling by the next election; and last, welfare spending must be within a cap. It remains to be seen how the scrapping of the 2020 deficit reduction target will impact upon business confidence as we enter 2017.
The next year will, to the exclusion of all almost all else, be about Brexit.
The Prime Minister, who is known to keep her own counsel and deprecate the impulses of many ministers to feed the Westminster rumour mill, remains notably non-committal on the type of plan her government will seek to advance in respect of Brexit. From access to the single market to passporting rights for the financial services sector to the free movement of immigrants from the European Union, huge question marks remain about the government’s strategy.
Time, however, is running out. Early on in 2017, the Prime Minister has promised to set out her proposals for a “truly global Britain” in what Downing Street has billed a “landmark speech”. What’s likely to be in the speech remains a secret; the fact that 2017 is set to be another year of political acrimony is not.