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Quo Vadis Britannia

[English translation of an invited op-ed published in the Greek Daily “TA NEA” on 29/10/2022]

Armando Iannucci is perhaps one of the most successful British writers of political satire  who has given unforgettable TV series to aficionados of the genre. Recent political developments in the UK explain why Iannucci now works mainly on projects abroad. Political reality leaves very little room for political satire. The main difference is that when political reality imitates political satire the outcome is not necessarily laughter but despair.

In a previous article (“Boris Johnson: End Credits?” TA NEA 8 July 2022 here) I wondered whether the former Prime Minister’s resignation was the swan song of his political career. We now have an answer. No. His decision not to join the leadership race, despite the fact that he had initiated the process of gauging (and securing) political support, does not rule out his return in the future. It is obvious that he considers it preferable for him to let someone else deal with the difficult challenges ahead. He has done so in the past when he left the “hot potato” of the Brexit negotiation to Theresa May. Simply put, Boris Johnson seems to be positioning himself for the next day after the Conservatives’ looming defeat in the next general election, to be held by January 2025.

The road to the next election is a difficult one for the Conservatives and the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The difficulty of this journey is connected with the situation of the economy, the challenges to the cohesion/integrity of the United Kingdom and geopolitics.

Let’s take a look at the new Prime Minister’s uphill struggle.

“…when political reality imitates political satire the outcome is not necessarily laughter but despair.”

Firstly, the UK economy, and in particular its credibility, was dealt a severe blow by the previous Government’s decisions. Inflation is galloping and public debt is rising dangerously. The priority of the new government is to reduce inflation, control public finances and restore the economy’s credibility. This means that the Prime Minister will have to take difficult -and painful for a large part of the population- measures. All the signs are that we are heading towards new austerity that will inevitably have political costs.

Already Labour is 31 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives in the voting intention. The margin of Labour’s lead when Liz Truss took over as Prime Minister was 11 points.

Second, Scotland is preparing for a “consultative” referendum on independence without the approval of the British Parliament on October 19th, 2023. The question of the legality/constitutionality of the referendum is being debated before the UK Supreme Court. In the event of a negative judgment by the UK Supreme Court, the Scottish Government has made it clear that it will regard the next election as a de facto referendum on independence. The main reason for the strengthening of the independence movement in Scotland is Brexit – Scotland had overwhelmingly supported the UK remaining in the EU.

“Given the state of the economy, normalising relations with the EU should have been one of the Government’s top priorities.”

Thirdly, the trade, political and geostrategic relations with the European Union which face the obstacle of the United Kingdom’s failure to fully implement the agreed Protocol on Northern Ireland. Both the governments of Boris Johnsons and Liz Truss had adopted a tough stance on this front. Given the state of the economy, normalising relations with the EU should have been one of the Government’s top priorities. However, as the choice of the new Cabinet demonstrates, the new Prime Minister’s margin for manoeuvring is restrained considerably by internal party dynamics.

Rishi Sunak seems unable to change dramatically government policy on these burning issues also for another reason: The legitimacy of his premiership rests on fulfilling the 2019 election manifesto. Any deviation from it will only strengthen the clamour for an early election at a time when the Tories want to avoid it at all costs.

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