Paul Montague-Smith, senior counsel for public affairs at MRM
A year on from the first national lockdown and MPs have again extended the emergency powers restricting our basic freedoms, again by a large majority.
Despite 35 Conservative rebels ringing alarm bells about a state becoming drunk on power, with Labour’s support there was never a threat of the Government being defeated.
The Government has also refused to rule out a further extension in October. After a volte face by the Prime Minister, it appears to be paving the way for vaccination/immunity certificates once all adults have been offered a jab, with individual businesses expected to decide whether to require them.
Much therefore still depends on the progress and effectiveness of the vaccination programme, which is facing its first significant bump in the road with delays of AstraZeneca supplies. If the EU Commission – fighting a desperate rear-guard action to regain credibility – prevents AstraZeneca from exporting to the UK until the EU has ‘caught up’, we could see the bump becoming a sinkhole.
A negotiated way forward is in everyone’s interests, not least because a breakdown in relations over vaccines would have a knock-on impact for an agreement on the functioning of the Northern Ireland protocol, over which relations are already extremely fragile.
As expected, the success of the vaccination programme so far has given a significant boost to the Government. The Conservatives have opened a nine-point lead over Labour as we head towards devolved parliamentary, local and mayoral elections at the beginning of May.
Labour did very badly in the 2017 local elections. If they don’t make good progress at recovering from that position alarm bells will be going off at Labour HQ. Another key indicator will be in the Red Wall constituencies where the Tories won at the general election but where they have no councillors.
If the Conservatives make inroads at that level, they know they’re on track. One thing always in the Conservatives’ favour is that older people are more likely to vote in elections and are more likely to vote Conservative. Being the prime beneficiaries of the vaccine programme that tendency is only likely to be stronger this time.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has survived the imminent threat to her position as First Minister. The big question is whether, given the recent turmoil, she can secure the majority she needs to claim a clear mandate for a second referendum.
Alex Salmond’s launch of a new pro-independence party will be a personal blow to Sturgeon and threatens to fracture the pro-independence vote over time. But because of the way the Scottish electoral system works, by only fielding candidates for regional lists Salmond’s new party could actually help secure a majority for independence in the next parliament.
Public support for independence has dropped over the last few months, pretty much back to neck and neck. If pro-independence parties fail to get a majority of seats, an SNP-led Government is unlikely to go for a referendum until a clear and sustained lead for independence re-emerges. Hesitancy on Sturgeon’s part, though, could of course play to Salmond’s advantage.
In Wales Labour faces its worst result since devolution began and could lose overall control of the Senedd, with Plaid Cymru, the Tories and the Abolish the Assembly Party all likely to gain seats. In
London, however, polling suggests Labour’s Sadiq Khan could get a landslide win without having to go to a second round of counting.
Back in Westminster the date of the Queen’s Speech has been set for Tuesday 11 May. With the road out of lockdown mapped we can expect Boris Johnson to focus on accelerating his levelling up and global Britain agendas. Key pieces of legislation in the next parliamentary term will include the new regulatory framework for financial services.
An interim Bill dealing with priority sectors is in the later stages of its parliamentary journey. A couple of hot topics have emerged during the debates. The Government was defeated in a vote on whether the FCA should place a statutory duty of care on firms towards consumers.
That might be overturned by the Commons but, along with a perceived need for regulators to do more to assess and address climate risks, it is likely to be a subject of continuing debate in the weeks and months ahead.