Two topics dominated the United Kingdom during the two-year period reviewed in this report: the completion of the process of exiting the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic.
Brexit deal leaves unfinished business
The 2019 general election provided Prime Minister Johnson with a substantial majority (80 seats) in the House of Commons. Johnson’s election success was greatly helped by the pledge to “get Brexit done” after years of political infighting and by an opposition party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who proved unattractive to voters, especially in central and northern England. Negotiations with the European Union remained complicated and only reached a conclusion on Christmas Eve 2020, ending speculation about a “no-deal” Brexit. Despite the finalization of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, many items of unfinished business concerning relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union remain, and will take years to complete. In particular, the Northern Ireland Protocol has caused renewed political tensions. Frictions have been evident as business and citizens adjust to new rules, new customs controls and shifts in supply chains. As a result, the share of imports of goods from the European Union fell marginally in 2021, but UK exports to the European Union recovered after a sluggish start to the year.
lessons not heeded
lessons not heeded
The coronavirus pandemic reached the United Kingdom later than some continental European countries, but there is now a consensus that too little was done to heed the lessons from other countries. The government imposed a “lockdown” on 23 March 2020, instructing citizens to “stay at home,” and introduced cushioning measures, such as loans to affected businesses and a “furlough” scheme to support workers made temporarily unemployed. Despite substantial additional funding, the NHS was acutely stretched as infection rates soared, but managed to cope, albeit at the expense of cutting back on treating patients with other needs. The government claimed its policy was to “follow the science,” but it was criticized for failing to act soon enough against a surge in inflections in the autumn of 2020. A rapid initial vaccination rate tailed off subsequently leaving the United Kingdom near the European average by 2022. However, judging by data on COVID-19-induced deaths per million inhabitants, the United Kingdom fared poorly compared with other richer European countries.
back to normal
back to normal
Politically, the Westminster system is “back to normal” with a healthy government majority allowing the government to pursue its policies, although a succession of stories about the prime minister’s malfeasance have called his authority into question. Keir Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Starmer has worked to heal intra-party rifts and to position his party as a credible opposition, with the polls suggesting growing success. The party system has reconsolidated with the electoral demise of UKIP and the Brexit Party.
Robust rebound, but lingering concerns
The United Kingdom had to face the challenge of the pandemic, while redefining both its role in the world and adapting its domestic regulatory model. So far, there have been few signs of radical change in either respect. The economy endured a sharp fall in GDP in 2020, induced by the lockdown. However, the recovery in 2021 proved to be stronger than expected. Nevertheless, inflation is rising and, while public finances remain sustainable and employment is increasing, there are grounds for concern about the overall health of the economy as the pandemic recedes.
Spotlight on division
Although the responses to the pandemic across the four nations of the United Kingdom differed in detail, they have not been that dissimilar. They have, however, drawn attention to the division of competencies among the units of governance in the United Kingdom, with potential ramifications for debates on Scottish (and possibly also Welsh) independence and the governance of Northern Ireland. In England, there has been further delegation of power to city and metro mayors, which has sometimes led to friction with central government, for example, over funding arrangements.
Key social agenda
Regarding executive capacity, a number of changes, including a reconfiguration of cabinet committees and further reform of delivery oversight, have been undertaken, with the aim of promoting better policy coordination and implementation. However, measures relating to the leveling-up objectives (central to the government’s agenda) and reform of a dysfunctional social care system were postponed while the focus was on the pandemic.