A remarkable, unprecedented year in Scottish and British politics comes to an end – resignations, arrests and record-breaking by-elections. And yet, the only correct response is: “You’re joking – not another one!”
We’ve hardly had a break from the extraordinary in politics. But despite all that’s happened this year, Westminster is slipping rather quietly into the season of festive TV specials and overeating.
This is the first proper Christmas break from politics in a long time. No knife-edge Brexit votes postponed at the last minute. The only thing oven-ready is the Christmas dinner. At last, a season of peace and relaxation for the nation’s political journalists.
Why the change in political mood? Because 2023 may finally be the year that the public stopped listening. Like a television series that’s gone on too long and exhausted the writers’ imaginations, viewers are done with the drama – and are switching off. With a general election ahead, that’s a concern for all political parties.
Rishi Sunak always had an impossible job, trying to stabilise the Tories after the cataclysm of Liz Truss’ leadership. But all year, the party’s poll rating has stubbornly refused to budge. The Prime Minister has tried everything in 2023 – frequently quite contradictory things.
He’s taken a tough stance on immigration, doubling down on the Rwanda policy and making “stop the boats” his most memorable pledge – but he sacked the darling of the right, home secretary Suella Braverman.
He scrapped the leg of HS2 to Manchester during a party conference in Manchester. He’s ripped up the political consensus on net zero.
He attacked the record of British political leaders going back 30 years, then brought former PM David Cameron back into the cabinet. He’s delivered a significant tax cut, with more on the way in the new year, but allowed the overall tax burden to drift to record levels.
Nothing is working. On the same night in October, the Tories lost the seats of Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire to Labour by the second and third largest by-election swings in history. Professor Sir John Curtice called it “one of the worst nights any government has endured”.
The problem is that voters no longer trust the Conservatives on the issues that are their traditional strengths: the economy and immigration.
The last time the Tories lost credibility on the economy, when the UK crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1993, they never regained a lead in the polls, culminating in the landslide election defeat of 1997. After 13 years in power, voters may already have made up their minds.
The SNP have, of course, been in power in Scotland even longer than the Conservatives at Westminster. And this year could hardly have been more turbulent for the nationalists – the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, followed by her arrest and subsequent release without charge in an ongoing probe over party finances.
Then a bad-tempered leadership contest that exposed the fault lines in the SNP. One of Humza Yousaf’s rivals, Ash Regan, has defected to Alba, the first MSP ever to switch parties at Holyrood; the other, Kate Forbes, sits menacingly on the backbenches, posing a threat to the First Minister that SNP leaders aren’t used to facing.
A series of rows over controversial policies – gender recognition reform and the deposit return scheme – opened SNP ministers to attacks over their competence, while giving the UK Government the chance to flex its constitutional muscles.
Sturgeon’s chosen date for a second independence referendum came and went on 19 October, the SNP having settled unhappily on a policy of securing a majority of seats at the next general election – a policy that few in the party are happy with, and many in the general public will struggle to understand.
All the while, Yousaf has scrambled to appear in control while the police investigation into the SNP rumbles on.
The First Minister chose to stand by the health secretary, Michael Matheson, after it emerged that he ran up a £11,000 roaming bill while on holiday in Morocco, charged to the taxpayer – a decision that could pose a further challenge to Yousaf’s authority.
By-election defeats are the voters’ way of putting governments on notice; the SNP used to inflict them, but in Rutherglen & Hamilton West, the nationalists suffered their first one ever.
And for the first time since the 2014 independence referendum, support for the SNP and for Scotland leaving the UK has diverged. The danger for the SNP is that voters have started to view it as no different from any other political party – and are considering a future where it no longer dominates Scottish politics.
Where does all this leave Labour? Sir Keir Starmer must be pretty pleased with himself. In 2023, he completed his project of securing total control of the Labour Party, closing off any chance of a return for the suspended former leader Jeremy Corbyn and selecting a slate of loyal general election candidates.
Despite abandoning most of his leadership pledges, refusing to commit to greater public spending, and offering few big policy initiatives, Sir Keir’s path to 10 Downing Street looks clear.
But Labour’s position in the polls is as much about its opponents’ unpopularity as its popularity. Sir Keir himself has a net approval rating of -25, ten points lower than his party.
And the rebellion over Labour’s stance on a ceasefire in Gaza, where Sir Keir’s desire to look like a government-in-waiting collided with the views of Labour supporters, was a warning of the risks of coasting to an election victory by default.
How much will Labour be able to achieve if, unlike Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” landslide of 1997, it sweeps to power on a wave of unenthusiasm?
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