It may be difficult to recall such relative calm, but at the beginning of this decade the leadership of today’s four largest Westminster parties remained steady and constant.
After Ed Miliband took up Labour’s reins in 2010, for the following four years no party leadership changed hands at all, despite the country struggling to manage the economic and political fallout of the greatest financial crisis in living memory.
Four years. What are the odds of our current crop of party leaders remaining unchanged for that length of time, trapped in the political crucible that is Brexit? Zero. Some may not see out the next four weeks.
More than ever, the fortunes of our political parties in this general election are beholden to the appeal (or lack thereof) of their respective leaders. Notions of trust, competence, and that most prized but elusive quality, ‘authenticity’, will steer the votes of millions.
Those who fail to find favour will answer to their parties and may not survive at the helm for long. If any one can convince the electorate sufficiently to return an overall majority to Westminster, they will be rewarded not only with the keys to No 10, but also the chance to pursue their chosen Brexit vision, poisoned chalice though that may yet prove to be.
'Tangible impact on domestic policy'
So, in an election framed by Brexit and dominated by a frenzied focus on party leaders, is there any space for domestic policy to cut through in voters’ minds? Party manifestos published over the past week present the electorate with a menu of options that is broad, not just in relation to Brexit and constitutional affairs, but also domestic policy. This may have been billed as a Brexit election but, with an old fashioned left-right dynamic back in play, its outcome will have a tangible impact on the domestic policy front.
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Take, for example, taxation. Having abandoned plans to cut corporation tax, the Conservatives plan to freeze this at the present 19 per cent rate, whereas the Lib Dems pledge an increase to 20 per cent, and Labour plans a reversal to cuts seen since 2010, which could take the rate to a level approaching 28 per cent.
On immigration, the Conservatives plan to end free movement and introduce an Australian-style points-based system, the Lib Dems pledge to protect EU freedom of movement, and the SNP calls for the devolution of powers, to create a Scotland-specific immigration system. These differing policies would have a marked impact on the day-to-day operations of businesses.
Organisations concerned with gauging the political risk (or opportunity) that this election result poses would be advised to read and compare all party manifestos in detail. Over the past several days, Pinsent Masons has undertaken a side-by-side analysis of policy positions in respect of the infrastructure, technology, energy, financial services and real estate sectors. This proves to be somewhat instructive.
There is also, of course, similarity to be found across the parties. Few will acknowledge this though, in a political contest where policy is projected through a lens of difference and binary rights and wrongs. Take VAT, where Conservatives, Labour and the SNP are in alignment in guaranteeing no rate increase.
On public services, while policies vary widely, a common theme of increased investment has formed the front line in the bidding war for votes that is gathering pace. Aware that few votes would be won this year on an austerity ticket, all major parties now promise significant public spending increases.
Coupled with the ongoing uncertainty posed by Brexit, businesses should prepare for further change on the domestic front, irrespective of who occupies No 10. With an incoming government to be in office for up to five years, the impact of this election may be felt for a long time, both constitutionally and in day-to-day policy decisions. Likely far longer than the careers of the party leaders who fail to win the affection of voters in two weeks’ time.
- Andrew Henderson, director of public policy at Pinsent Masons.