I broke my habit of recent years last year and didn’t make any predictions for the coming year (I had no time at the end of last year). That was fortunate because I would have got almost everything wrong. However, it is a good discipline to make these predictions if only so that I can identify what I thought was going on and think about why I was wrong (or right) later on. That way I might actually get better.
So what is going on at the end of 2017? Britain is at the start of a five year fixed term Parliament. However, the government is a minority Conservative government, with supply and confidence from the DUP. This does not make for a stable outlook. The DUP has no great love of the Conservative party, being ideologically much closer to UKIP and only its unbridled hatred of Labour gives the Conservatives any measure of security. The government has already been defeated in several Parliamentary votes on a variety of topics, as will occur whenever the DUP decide that they don’t need to take the heat for difficult decisions or whenever a sufficient number of Conservative backbenchers decide that they are going to splinter from the party line to take.
The economy has been lacklustre all year: when the rest of the world is seeing healthy growth, Britain’s economy is anaemic, having slipped from first to last place in the G7 since the referendum result. That said, it has continued to grow – slowly – and employment statistics continue to sparkle even as wages and productivity continue to disappoint. Economists seem to be predicting that Britain will remain in a holding pattern pending Brexit. Some straws in the wind suggest that Britain’s economy might surprise a little on the upside in 2018 but we’re unlikely to see anything amazing.
Britain is in the throes of extended negotiations over the terms of Brexit with the EU. 2018 will be dominated politically by these in the same way that the second half of 2017 was. While the preliminary agreement in December was hailed as a great triumph, it is only base camp. The sherpas have got some hard climbing ahead of them and their masters haven’t been up to much so far.
In the circumstances, you would expect an opposition that had unexpectedly gained seats at the general election to be resurgent, poised to take over at a moment’s notice when the government collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. But while Jeremy Corbyn now has complete command of the Labour party, Labour is making no further headway in the polls. Labour has successfully straddled the divide between Labour Leave supporters and militant Remainers and the price of doing so is to have to remain in Opposition while Brexit remains unfinished business.
What of the Lib Dems? What indeed? They gained a few seats in June and no vote share. Vince Cable has made no impression since becoming leader in the wake of the general election. They continue to await a new role.
The SNP meanwhile had a nasty shock in June, losing seats to both Labour and the Conservatives in a unionist pincer movement. The risk of this being extended at a future election is obvious to all. The SNP need a strategy for dealing with this, and fast.
Anyway, time for some predictions.
- There will be a Brexit deal, substantially on the EU’s terms
The real news from the December preliminary agreement was that both the UK and the EU want to do a deal. The deal that was done was largely on the EU’s terms.
The EU had insisted on a first stage to deal with three points. It wanted the money sorted and it got the money sorted, being promised a sum that was twice as much as the FT had estimated would be needed in October 2016. It wanted citizens’ rights sorted and they have been sorted. It wanted a commitment to the special circumstances of Northern Ireland being addressed and it got one, with as much fudge as Theresa May needed.
Theresa May is using tactics without strategy. Politically, that serves her quite well, even if it isn’t good for the country. Despite caving in on more or less everything, the media coverage of her initial deal was excellent and her opponents on all sides were discomfited. Aside from a few rumblings from those Leavers whose preferred version of Brexit would be tectonic, she carried all before her at home.
We can expect to see the same trick repeated. Since the government has no strategy and no deal is worse than a bad deal, a bad deal will be done, substantially on the EU’s terms. This time the risk of hardliners opposing the deal will be much greater. There seems, however, to be a majority in the House of Commons for a bad deal. So I expect that a bad deal will be done and Theresa May will again look like a winner.
Much of the year will be taken up with alarums, excursions and brouhahas on the Brexit negotiations. We should ignore them all. We won’t.
- The party leaders will stay the same
This is a distinctly risky prediction. For starters, all three of Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable might voluntarily stand down in the next twelve months. Theresa May might consider that after a Brexit deal is done she is functus officio. Jeremy Corbyn is of an age where he might consider that he could hand over to someone younger and spend more time with his manhole covers. Vince Cable is still older and many Lib Dems think he is just keeping the seat warm for Jo Swinson in any case.
In practice, I don’t expect any of them to step down voluntarily next year (2019 is a different matter). The Brexit deal will need to be steered through Parliament and I expect that would take Theresa May into 2019. The revolution is incomplete in Labour without an heir apparent. If Jeremy Corbyn is to stand down, he needs to anoint a chosen one first. Vince Cable shouldn’t have taken the job if he only intended to serve for a year.
There is no shortage of pretenders to Theresa May’s crown. However, the ones that want loyalty lack sufficient Parliamentary support (or there would already have been a challenge). Perhaps the Brexit deal will offer a pretext and a candidate for MPs to rally around. The expectation must, however, be that there will not.
- There will be more Cabinet departures
This is not particularly a Brexit prediction, though it is easy to see how Brexit could induce a resignation on principle. Theresa May has already lost three Cabinet ministers in quick succession and seems unable to command or offer the same loyalty that David Cameron managed. Further departures should therefore be expected. If she is willing to throw her most senior minister, a longstanding friend, under a bus, no one is safe.
- Labour and the Conservatives will remain roughly neck and neck in the polls
Since the general election, the polls have not moved much. Labour may have inched ahead while the various Brexit trackers suggest that the public might be edging towards doubting the wisdom of the decision to Leave. But this is all very much at the edges.
Both main parties have uneasy coalitions. The Conservatives are a combination of believers in Brexit and those who regard the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour government with horror. Labour are a coalition of evangelical acolytes of Jeremy Corbyn, old school social democrats and devastated Remain supporters looking for a place from which to oppose the Conservatives effectively. These coalitions look as if they will stay coalescent for as long as Jeremy Corbyn leads Labour. The success or otherwise of completing a Brexit deal looks unlikely to have a major impact on polling.
I’m also not expecting to see too much change in the polling on the referendum decision. If a deal is concluded, as I now expect, and the economy does OK in 2018, Leave might well start to pull ahead a bit – maybe as far as 55:45. But the only concessions that the government has made to Remain supporters have been extracted by the EU. If the government wants to start converting Remain supporters in numbers it is going to need to show that it can include their values in its vision of Brexit. Since it isn’t even trying, we can expect a hardcore group of Remainers for the indefinite future. Christmas 2018 is likely to have just as many family arguments about Brexit as Christmas 2017 and Christmas 2016. Happy New Year!