Rishi Sunak's challenge, Scottish independence and Labour plans - what to watch in the year ahead for Westminster

The UK Government is facing yet another chaotic year, needing to handle the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, rebuild the economy and continue the never-ending battle for the Union.

After a year that saw three prime ministers and four chancellors, Rishi Sunak needs to bring his party back together and convince the public to give the Conservatives their vote in 2024.

The most immediate way to do this will be to go about fixing the economy after a mini-budget that wiped £30 billion from the public purse. This, along with Covid and the war in Ukraine, have left Britain in a recession, and the party’s reputation for good handling of the nation’s finance in tatters.

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Disposable income is set to fall more than 7 per cent in the next two years – the biggest drop on record – and Britain will see the biggest fall in living standards since records began in 1956 as inflation soars.

Westminster is braced for another chaotic year filled with difficult decisions.
Westminster is braced for another chaotic year filled with difficult decisions.
Westminster is braced for another chaotic year filled with difficult decisions.

Fixing this is the number one priority for Mr Sunak, and coming up with means to do this, or at least justifying the difficult choices, will be key to his chances of winning an election.

Part of this will be outlining how the UK Government would handle the £35bn cuts to public spending, which Chancellor Jeremy Hunt deferred until after the next election.

This delay works as a trap for Labour, who will have to outline their own financial plans, but also leaves the Government needing to justify the decision with more than just denying it is implementing austerity.

Mr Sunak’s appointment has started the rebuilding process, with polls showing the former chancellor is more trusted on the economy than his Labour counterpart, Sir Keir Starmer.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, his party isn’t, still trailing Labour by 16 points in the latest polls, with some even forecasting the Tories winning less than 100 seats at the next general election.

As a result of the constant changes in Downing Street, along with the Tories current lack in popularity, Mr Sunak must also grapple seeing a host of his own MPs stand down.

This includes former ministers such as Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock, along with those considered the future of the party such as the Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison.

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One MP explained: “I am not standing down, but the way things are going I may as well. The problem is we’ve been s**t for too long and once you mess up the economy, you’re f****d”.

In Scotland, the UK Government will be focusing on the Freeports programme, along with further projects driven by the Levelling Up Fund, as well as spending for local councils from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Ministers hope to make the case the UK Government is investing directly in Scotland, empowered through the Internal Market Bill, something labelled a “power grab” by the SNP.

There are also hopes for closer co-operation between the two administrations, with Mr Sunak seeking better relations with his counterparts than his predecessors.

The UK Government hopes for joint working in agriculture such as extending gene editing tech to Scotland, in energy with new-generation mini-nuclear generators and transport to improve routes such as the A75, despite SNP resistance.

Elsewhere, the aftermath of the Supreme Court verdict on independence leaves both sides at somewhat of a stalemate, needing to come up with new methods to garner support.

The SNP enjoyed a succession of polls showing an outright majority for “Yes” after the result, but unfortunately for them, having indyref2 is not a simple popularity contest. Consecutive Prime Ministers have insisted there will be no second vote, and Nicola Sturgeon’s party find themselves at an impasse of what to do.

Ms Sturgeon insists the next election will be a “de-facto” referendum, but this idea has gone down badly within the SNP Westminster group. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the election of Stephen Flynn as the Westminster leader is a blow to Ms Sturgeon and has created divisions within the party.

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Some see his victory as a change to reframe the debate, and believe new arguments for independence will be made that can tilt the balance. However, some SNP MPs see his victory as a matter of “ego” that could spill over if people aren’t kept happy.

One told The Scotsman: “I am not saying anything now because we’ve all got to play along and put independence first, but make no mistake, this is about ego. For him to win like that, he’s obviously worked on it for a year, and I still don’t know what he’s going to do differently because he’s not told any of us”.

On independence, UK Government ministers are more relaxed, believing the polling is a blip and not a concern until it reaches past 60 per cent.

For Labour, the party will look to build on its strong polling and more clearly define itself as the opposition. Sir Keir has a positive approval rating, but there are still questions over where the party actually stands on strikes, pay rises and the economy.

After two prime ministers were engulfed by scandal or financial incompetence, Labour did not need to present a coherent narrative, it was enough to stay still. Mr Sunak may have questionable political judgement, but the public likes him, and he has made saying Labour lack a plan a cornerstone of Conservative messaging.

Addressing this will only become more of an issue as time goes on and the Conservative party begin to reorganise. Then there is Scotland, where the party continues to grow under Anas Sarwar, and is privately confident about making multiple gains.

There is little pressure from inside the party for Labour to change, but shoring up the support will take more than just not being the Conservatives. Labour’s shadow Scotland Secretary Ian Murray said: “Next year will be dominated by the cost-of-living crisis and the long economic downturn as any result of the Tories crashing the economy.

"In Scottish politics, I suspect 2023 will be similar to 2022 and wrongly dominated by the SNPs obsession with independence, much to the detriment of the serious priorities facing Scots.

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"My hope would be a general election, so Labour can kick the Tories out of office and give the country the fresh start it needs.”



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