This general election we should think beyond Brexit - Andrew Henderson

The Scottish public has been called to the polls for nationwide votes on no less than eight occasions in the past five years. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
The Scottish public has been called to the polls for nationwide votes on no less than eight occasions in the past five years. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
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Election campaigns are not famed as periods of calm political reflection. That said, a five-week break from Westminster may be welcomed as a tonic by many, after what the country has witnessed so far this autumn.

October was long anticipated to be a tumultuous and decisive month in the Brexit process. In the event, tumult was in abundance. Decision? Less so.

It would be understandable to view this election entirely through a Brexit lens, says Henderson. Picture: Wullie Marr

It would be understandable to view this election entirely through a Brexit lens, says Henderson. Picture: Wullie Marr

Lenin observed “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. This seems apposite to the parliamentary month we have just witnessed, and the election we are now hurtling towards. A challenge lies in determining precisely what is happening now, and what impact this may have on the future fabric of our politics, democracy, society and business.

Attempting a measured assessment of this, while events are still unfolding apace, would be as much a fool’s errand as attempting to “call” December’s election result. To deploy a Blairism, the kaleidoscope has been shaken and the pieces are in flux; we don’t know where they will settle. So what can business do to stay on top of the political risk that continues to emanate from the exposed core of our fractured party system?

It would be understandable to view this election almost entirely through a Brexit lens. Certainly, the result will colour our relations with Europe. A Conservative majority would almost certainly see Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal pass the Commons, opening a new phase of the saga in the form of trade negotiations and, domestically, heightened disquiet from other nations and regions of the UK, not least Scotland, who may envy Northern Ireland’s continued close proximity to the EU, and demand a similar settlement.

A Labour win, or hung parliament in which Jeremy Corbyn is able to form a government with the support of smaller parties, would increase the prospect of second referenda, on EU membership and, potentially, Scottish independence.

Beyond Brexit

However, as Theresa May learned two years ago at the expense of her parliamentary majority, elections which we expect to be defined by a single issue rarely are. Granted, Brexit will provide the frame within which the general election will play out. Amid the Leave/Remain cacophony and the distraction of political soap opera, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that whoever gains the keys to No 10 will be elected to steer the direction of a huge swathe of domestic policy – much of which will be of direct and significant impact to business.

Notwithstanding recent events under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and the potential for a majority Conservative government to repeal this, as things currently stand next month’s election will elect a parliament of MPs who will serve until 2024.

Consider the five years that have just passed (for context, the Scottish public has been called to the polls for nationwide votes on no less than eight occasions in this period) and then ponder the amount of domestic policy that the government we are about to elect will have the time to pursue. Understanding what is on the menu policy-wise, beyond Brexit, is therefore of vital importance.

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Thankfully, in the form of party manifestos which will be published over the coming weeks, we have a starter for ten when assessing the risks and opportunities that the domestic agendas of political parties pose.

Of course, election manifestos do not provide an exhaustive guide to what a party will do when in office, especially in the event of a coalition or minority government. However, they do provide a valuable steer on a party’s broad approach to issues and sectors, and in many instances, sufficiently granular proposals to inform an organisation’s risk register.

Outside of the Westminster bubble, party manifestos are rarely read cover-to-cover. This year they should be though – especially as most eyes will be focussed elsewhere.

- Andrew Henderson, director of public policy at Pinsent Masons.