Why three political reputations are on the line in 2022

Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and Nicola Sturgeon are in for a testing time over the next 12 months.

Why three political reputations are on the line in 2022 SNS GroupSTV News

The festive season is over and a flabbier waistline the only legacy of memories of bloated indulgence.

We now look ahead to a new year that looks as if it will be make or break on so many fronts.

On the ghastly pandemic, it is now clear that politicians have accepted that a policy of limited modifications to behaviour is now preferable to enforced lockdowns.

2022 will be the year when it is treated not as a pandemic, but as endemic. The hope is that new variants do not neutralise the game-changing nature of the vaccines, propelling governments back to base camp in the fight against Covid.

Reputations, always fragile among public figures, look like they are in for a testing time. Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and Nicola Sturgeon have their own challenges in the year ahead.

‘Perpetual state of crisis’

There is a mood in the parliamentary Conservative Party that says that all the pre-leadership warnings about the Prime Minister’s limited skillset are coming home to roost, as a perpetual state of crisis rooted in Johnson’s shortcomings defines the government.

If drift continues to be the prevailing characteristic and if he fails to deal deftly with the cost-of-living crisis, then the shoogly peg upon which his jaickit hangs might just drop to the floor.

Wannabe PMs in the cabinet know there is a mood of discontent, but they wish to be pushed to the leadership by a backbench revolt rather than orchestrate a knife-in-the-front coup.

Higher inflation, soaring energy bills, a national insurance increase, higher council tax, squeezed living standards, further interest rate rises… On and on it goes, and how Johnson deals with a voter backlash will be key. If he misjudges the mood, it could be the issue that finishes him.

‘Starmer needs Johnson’

Sir Keir, the Labour leader, desperately needs Boris Johnson. He needs him to remain in Number 10. Starmer’s electability depends in part on not being Boris Johnson, on being everything that the Prime Minister is not: calm, dispassionate, measured, a steady hand in a time of crisis.

If the Tories have a less volatile leader who is stability personified, then Starmer is likely to look less attractive. He already struggles in the personality stakes, which is why Labour need to own the cost-of-living agenda and that means new ideas that cut through with the great mass of voters.

Every opposition leader has to ‘seal the deal’ with voters and that means being seen as a Prime Minister in waiting. Starmer is a long way off that. The recent poll leads, whilst welcome, are no pointer to the longer term. As elections loom, there is normally a swing back to the government after the blues of mid-term.

Labour need to rely less on self-inflicted wounds by the government and define the prevailing political narrative.

They have to force the government to react to their ideas rather than be an opposition who opposes, just because it is what the opposition is designed to do. When you own the agenda in politics you control the narrative, and when that narrative is rooted in the concerns of voters, you have the basis of a winning strategy.

‘Mother of all rows’

2022 will also be the year when Sturgeon has to press ahead with her manifesto pledge to allow people a say on the country’s constitutional future. The army of activists (particularly those not in the SNP) will demand action, frustrated that the issue of the constitution appears to be defined by the kind of drift that is almost Johnsonian in nature.

If Holyrood demands powers to hold a plebiscite and Westminster says ‘no’, then the current stand-off on the issue will crystallise, probably in a wrangle in the courts about the constitutional authority of the Scottish Parliament.

Be in no doubt, the mother of all rows is coming for all that and the First Minister’s leadership skills will be tested to the limit as she tries to keep faith with her manifesto pledge whilst tip-toeing through a legal minefield exploding to the cries from some in the ‘Yes’ movement to get on with it.

Three leaders, three reputations, all about to be made or broken by the year ahead.