Despite the January gloom, our best days lie ahead

Matthew Elliott

MHP Adviser and former CEO of Vote Leave Matthew Elliott looks ahead at the year to come and explores what is next for the UK after the turbulent year of 2020.

In mid-December, after a tough year, spirits were beginning to lift in the Treasury and No10. Britain was leading the way in rolling out the Covid vaccine, an EU-UK trade agreement was far closer than could be admitted publicly, and everyone was looking forward to putting 2020 behind them and opening up the economy again in the New Year. And along came the new mutant strain of the Coronavirus.

January is always a depressing month as life returns to normal after the Christmas holidays, with bank accounts depleted, and the coldest, wettest weeks of the year ahead. And the beginning of 2021, with the announcement of a third national lockdown, feels especially severe. But as Senator John McCain, famous for his wicked sense of humour, would remind staff when confronted with bad news, “it’s always darkest before it’s completely black.”

Some commentators have jumped the gun in writing off 2021 as another 2020. But before we lapse into a collective bout of misery, it is worth remembering two key achievements of last year. Many people said that a Brexit deal couldn’t be done, but we have left the transition period with a zero-tariff, zero-quota trade agreement, and the queues of lorries have yet to materialise. Many people said that it would take years for a Covid vaccine to come on stream, but with the collaboration of universities and pharmaceutical companies across the world, the inoculations have begun.

Q1 is – sadly – set to be dominated by the third lockdown, but with the vaccine, the stage is set from Q2 for the Government to return their focus to the Prime Minister’s legacy for the 2020s. And with Dan Rosenfield newly installed as the PM’s Chief of Staff, this will be followed in a more rigorous, joined-up and collegiate way than could be achieved by the Brexit-delivering, election-winning team that was necessary for the first phase of his premiership.

On the diplomatic front, the UK’s G7 Presidency and hosting the COP26 conference in November, present two opportunities.

First, to demonstrate that Brexit was not about the UK ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ or ‘retreating from the world’, as Leave campaigners were sometimes accused of. Reinforcing this message is essential to attracting international investment.

Second, to show international leadership on climate change and the Build Back Better agenda which many countries are adopting post-Covid. Leading on these issues will create global opportunities for UK businesses.

On the trading front, a big focus for Q1 will be continuing the negotiations with the EU on financial services – an area of the agreement which was not as ambitious as the UK negotiators had hoped for. Both sides have agreed, however, to attempt to reach a memorandum of understanding by March, that might include ‘equivalence’ – an agreement to recognise each other’s rules. This would be a bonus win for the UK.

Finally, on the domestic front, Rishi Sunak’s Budget on the 3rd March is likely to add substance to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. This is more important than ever with both the North-South divide and income inequalities widening with the pandemic.

Whilst Boris Johnson’s legacy is likely to centre on Brexit, and leading the country through the Covid, his personal hope will be to deliver prosperity and improve people’s quality of life in all parts of the country.

When it comes to the next general election, the voters who gave Boris Johnson his 80-seat majority will not simply doff their caps and vote blue, grateful that he got Brexit done. They want to see a real, material change in their lives. Am I better off or worse off than I was in 2019? Have the local schools and hospitals improved? Is it easier to travel around? Is my job secure, and satisfying?

This is not to say that the Prime Minster will turn his focus to levelling-up for political expediency – it runs much deeper than that. Vote Leave’s slogan was – famously – ‘Take Back Control’. But less well known was the initial slogan Dominic Cummings devised – ‘Vote Leave, Get Change’. And even though this was devised several months before Boris Johnson joined the campaign, it gives a far better insight into his governing philosophy.