Will ‘Big Dog’ Survive?

Its been a hectic start to the new year in the world of Westminster politics. Frank McKenna casts his eye on the scandals, the policies and the possible outcomes as ‘Big Dog’ fights for his political survival.

Frank McKenna

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Where to start? Party-gate, the lifting of Plan B restrictions, the BBC licence fee and culture wars, the cost-of-living squeeze, operation ‘Save Big Dog’, political defections, or the levelling up agenda?

It has certainly been a busy start to the new year for our politicians, and that is likely to continue to be the case for some months to come.

Boris Johnson, the great political survivor, has got through another week (don’t forget, a week is a long time in politics) and the next big challenge he will face in relation to his alleged rule-breaking during the 2020 lockdown will come when senior civil servant Sue Gray publishes her inquiry report, probably next week.

Unless, of course, more revelations are leaked by, let’s say, the prime minister’s former advisor, turned nemesis, Dominic Cummings. You do get the feeling that Johnson is now one bad story away from certain termination.

One of the reasons some pressure has been taken off him is his announcement that Plan B restrictions are to be lifted, and that the government will be drawing up a strategy for the country to “live with COVID” from the spring.

This is not only music to the ears of around 100 Conservative MPs, but also to many in the country who, accepting the pandemic was a serious health risk that needed radical action, now conclude that restrictions and lockdowns are having very serious consequences of their own.

The mental health epidemic, kids trying to catch up from nearly two-years of missed education, a battered economy, domestic violence, and record waiting lists for hospital treatments are just some of the unfortunate results of the measures that we have had to suffer since March 2020.

Sceptics suggest that Johnson has lifted restrictions to deflect from his own personal challenges. However, all the evidence suggests that he called the Omicron crisis right and was correct in approaching its management with a lighter touch than, say Wales and Scotland. If he does survive his internal party difficulties, expect him to get significant credit for this.

One of Boris’ biggest cheerleaders, the culture secretary Nadine Norris, was charged this week with taking up the cudgels of culture wars, with a full-blooded, red meat attack on the BBC. Freezing the current TV licence fee and threatening the Beeb with its removal in the future, Tories think this is a vote winner. I’m not so sure, and among older people in particular, in other words mostly Conservative voters, the services the BBC offer that may not be appreciated by Nadine and her chums, local radio, regional news, and CBBC (that provides much needed respite when they’re looking after their grandchildren), are very much valued by the over 60s.

In normal times, an inflation rise to almost 6% would have been dominating the national conversation. Every cloud has a silver lining, and chancellor Rishi Sunak will have been relieved that the controversies surrounding his boss meant that this story went under the radar. However, economists are predicting further increase later in the year, and so it is a subject that will have to be dealt with as 2022 progresses.    

Levelling Up, alongside ‘Get Brexit Done’ was the only memorable policy pledge the Tory Party made during the last General Election campaign. A series of underwhelming announcements, and the scrapping of parts of the planned HS2 investment, has led to accusations that its commitment to the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies has been abandoned by the government. Michael Gove has been charged with putting some rocket fuel into this policy area, and it is expected that he will publish his long-awaited levelling up White Paper in February.

So, where does this all leave Keir Starmer and the Labour Party? A defection of the Tory Bury South MP Christian Wakeford, an opinion poll lead north of 30% in London, and national poll leads of between10-13%, means that the Leader of the Opposition starts the year in fine fettle. Nevertheless, he knows that in modern-day politics a 24-hour news cycle, never mind a week, is a long time in politics, and he won’t be getting carried away.

In many respects, he will be privately hoping that Boris Johnson limps on, seriously wounded but not fatally so. If there is life in ‘Big Dog’ yet, then that may suit Labour as much as it does the prime minister.

Whatever 2022 brings to the world of politics this year, it certainly won’t be boring.

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