United Kingdom


Key Challenges

Time short for Brexit negotiations
Dealing with the next stages of the Brexit process – internally and externally, as well as politically and economically – will undoubtedly be the main challenge facing the UK government over at least the next year. Completion of the withdrawal on 31 January 2020 was an important first step and hugely significant politically. However, new deadlines are already pressing, with the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 and a decision needed by July 2020 on whether to extend the period – by mutual agreement – potentially until the end of 2022. However, Prime Minister Johnson has repeatedly said that he is unwilling to countenance an extension, despite warnings from many sources about the difficulty of achieving more than a “bare-bones” agreement by the current deadline and the acknowledged complexities of negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement. This leaves a very little time for negotiating a trade agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Avoiding predecessor’s mistakes
A closely related challenge will be whether the current government can avoid repeating the many mistakes made by the UK side in negotiating the withdrawal deal, including unrealistic “red lines,” lack of administrative capacity and experience, departmental disagreements, and wishful-thinking politics. This will require a degree of political will and skill rarely seen from British politicians in recent years.
Vast amount of new legislation required
Renationalization of tasks after leaving the European Union will require a vast amount of primary and secondary legislation, requiring awkward choices about how administrative responsibilities are allocated among the different levels of government. There will be budgetary challenges (e.g., funding and building up regulatory expertise, and recruiting and training specialist personnel for trade negotiations and customs controls) and a need for considerable parliamentary time. Agreeing what rules to follow and working out reciprocity arrangements with regulatory agencies in other countries is also likely to be time-consuming and will require attention to detail. Similarly, the negotiation of new trade deals (or the rolling-over of those previously negotiated under the aegis of EU membership) with many countries will require substantial effort and could be a source of economic problems in the case of failure.
UK’s unity faces
increasing threats
Maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom in the aftermath of withdrawal from the European Union is another substantial challenge for two main reasons. First, the question of Scottish independence is again on the table. There has already been a formal request from Edinburgh for a second independence referendum, which was rejected by London. This may lead to a constitutional clash with unpredictable consequences in advance of Scottish Parliament elections in 2021. A move toward a unified Ireland may also surface, given the provisions of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and dismay in the province regarding the possible creation of a de facto border between the rest of the United Kingdom and the European Union in the Irish Sea. How the restored Norther Ireland Executive functions will be pivotal. Second, the deep societal divisions engendered by Brexit will need to be healed, in a context in which the Johnson government is aware that it has “borrowed,” rather than won, the votes of citizens in traditionally Labour-supporting parts of the countries.
Future uncertain for political center
A further political challenge concerns how the main parties will respond to the outcome of Brexit and the 2019 election. Both the Conservative and Labour parties will face difficult choices about whether to continue to shun the political center ground. Labour, in particular, needs to find a new narrative, otherwise there will be a lack of effective parliamentary opposition to the government. It remains to be seen whether a new party (or parties) can become successfully established, whether existing parties can absorb disaffected voters or whether one of the two main parties will pivot back to the center ground.
Long list of domestic challenges waits
Domestic policy challenges include housing, social care and the NHS, as well as low investment and lackluster productivity. There are also public services and projects for which shortcomings in performance have to be addressed. These include creaking infrastructure and public dissatisfaction with railways, delays in completing major projects, and concern about low detection rates by police forces. Although it is an open question whether the many Brexit-related governance problems were an aberration or evidence of more profound dysfunctionality, a fresh look at the governance system and the distribution of responsibilities will be needed as the country reverts to “normal” majority rule following the 2019 election result.

Party Polarization

Fundamental two-
party system logic
In the British system of government, the logic of the two-party system is fundamental. Although far more than two parties sit in parliament (in the 2017 general election for the House of Commons, members from no fewer than eight parties won seats). However, for the last several decades, prime ministers have been drawn from only two parties. Besides the political, there is also an institutional side to the two-party structure, namely the Office of the Leader of the Loyal Opposition. The entire logic and architecture of the House of Commons is geared toward a two-party antagonism, albeit with the corollary that both major parties are themselves coalitions of party members and members of parliament with very different policy positions. Effective “whipping” nevertheless means a strong incentive to maintain party unity on key parliamentary votes. In the non-elected second chamber, the House of Lords, both the role and influence of “crossbenchers” are more prominent, but it is the House of Commons that dominates Parliament.
Polarization rarely an obstacle to policymaking
Historically, the “first-past-the-post” electoral system has nearly always tended to produce stable one-party government majorities, including massive majorities during the Thatcher and Blair years in office. Following the elections in 2010 and again in 2017, no party secured a majority and the Conservative-led governments had to rely on a formal coalition (2010 – 2015) and a “confidence-and-supply” arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (2017 – 2019). Nevertheless, governments reliant on cross-party agreements have historically been an exception, with the result that polarization between the two dominant parties is rarely an obstacle to policymaking.
Factions inside parties upended norms; major parties have lost centrist members
The year covered by this report has, arguably, been an exception that proves the rule, through the conjunction of a minority government and Brexit, an issue that transcended normal party divisions. Dissenting factional views inside the two major parties over this issue, perhaps more than ideological polarization in the party system, repeatedly obstructed the achievement of compromises. This put a considerable strain on the party coherence of both major parties. In early 2019, a small number of members of parliament withdrew from both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party to form The Independent Group (later renamed Change UK). However, this group failed to build sufficient political momentum to establish itself and several of its more prominent members moved on to the Liberal Democrats. With the decision of several members of parliament in autumn 2019 not to seek re-election or to stand as independent candidates in the forthcoming general election, polarization increased further as both major parties lost centrist candidates. (Score: 4)
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