The year ahead in politics: Brexit will be done - but far from dusted as IndyRef2 demands step up

Boris Johnson faces tricky trade talks with EU, while Labour leader vote and Trump re-election bid in the US could be bruising contests, writes Scott Macnab

Boris Johnson's Brexit journey is expected to dominate the political agenda in the UK in the coming year
Boris Johnson's Brexit journey is expected to dominate the political agenda in the UK in the coming year

The political landscape over the coming year will continue to be heavily dominated by Brexit.

Boris Johnson’s decisive election victory last month means that the UK will certainly end it’s near 50-year membership of the European Union and its forerunners when the current extension expires at the end of January and the UK formally withdraws from the Brussels bloc.

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The new Westminster Parliament has already moved to pass a second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement bill. MPs will undertake detailed scrutiny of the legislation this month, which effectively provides the legal mechanism for translating the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal into law.

It needs to go through a committee stage, ‘third reading’ and the House of Lords. Although peers have proved difficult before, the mandate secured by Mr Johnson in the election means the upper house is unlikely to be provide an obstacle to the legislation becoming law by January 31.

Will this mark and end to the Brexit wrangling? Not likely. Mr Johnson’s 80-plus majority will mean no more knife edge Commons votes which became a hallmark of the past two years. The paralysis in the UK political system should come to an end. But the coming year is likely to see trade talks intensify between London and Brussels before the end of the “transition period” on 31 December this year.

This has provided businesses with the same tariffs and regulations to smooth the departure process. Mr Johnson wants to secure a Free Trade Agreement with the EU by this time, insisting that since the UK already complies with EU rules and regulations on goods and services, a quickfire arrangement can be ratified. But the EU’s chief Michel Barnier has warned this will not be possible in such a tight timeframe. The EU’s trade deal with Canada took seven years.

It leaves open the prospect of a “No Deal” Brexit at the end of the year if no agreement is reached. At the same time, the UK will also step up trade talks with other countries, including the US, India and Australia.

Nicola Sturgeon will step up her demands for a repeat of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence in the coming year as she seeks to avoid Scotland being taken out of the EU “against its will.” Scots voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the landslide victory won by the Nationalists in Scotland at last month’s election has been held up as evidence by the First Minister of the appetite among Scots for another vote on leaving the UK.

The Scottish Parliament passed legislation in its final week before recess which paves the way for such a vote to take place. The SNP leader has also published a detailed case for a transfer of power from Westminster in the form of a Section 30 order which is required to allow Holyrood to stage such a vote. But this has so far been rejected by Boris Johnson, who points to Ms Sturgeon’s own claim in 2014 that it would be “once in a generation” event.

He will not to agree to a referendum. Despite speculation about a legal challenge, Ms Sturgeon has declined to say how she will react if Mr Johnson refuses to budge on his refusal to transfer power.

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A new UK Labour leader will also be elected in the coming year after Jeremy Corbyn announced he would be standing down in the aftermath of the party’s disastrous election defeat.

It is likely to be an acrimonious affair amid anger over Corbyn’s decision to remain in place until a successor is appointed, with suspicions that he is seeking to oversee a “handover” to another hard-left candidate. Moderates believe this was a key factor in the party’s defeat, as well as Corbyn’s poor leadership.

It could see the first female leader of the Labour party, with Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Philips and Emily Thornberry expected to be among the candidates, along with the party’s Brexit spokesman Kier Starmer and Clive Lewis.

A review has already been announced by the Labour Together organisation, which will include former leader Ed Miliband and the party will stage its own inquiry. The fallout from the party’s fourth successive election defeat won’t be pretty.

The trial of former First Minister Alex Salmond on a string sexual assault charges is also poised to get underway early in the new year. The ex-SNP leader is charged with 14 offences against 10 women, including attempted rape. The case has already sent shockwaves throughout public life when the criminal charges first came to light last year. Mr Salmond, 64, has already made two appearances at the High Court in Edinburgh and denies all the charges against him. They are alleged to have taken place over a six-year period from June 2008 to November 2014.

The courts are also poised to be the focus of attention when the St Andrews University-based academic Clara Ponsati faces an extradition hearing over charges of sedition over her role in Catalonia’s unsanctioned 2017 independence referendum. Prof Ponsati’s defence team has indicated it plans to call Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, former prime minister Mariano Rajoy and former foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo as witnesses, to consider whether the academic will get a fair trial in Spain.

Prof Ponsati faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, with nine other Catalan officials given jail sentences of between nine and 13 years over their role in helping organise the referendum.

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The global political picture is likely to dominated by events in the US. Donald Trump stands for re-election in November in what is likely to be another bruising and divisive contest. But before he can do so, he must avoid removal from office in his upcoming impeachment trial in the US Senate.

The majority-Democrat Congress has already voted to impeach the President over accusations of pressurising the Ukraine to dig up damaging information on Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and then refusing to co-operate with a congressional inquiry into the matter.

Trump is likely to be acquitted at the subsequent impeachment trial in the Senate, where his Republican party hold the majority. Biden is among the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the Presidential election race. But there is no clear frontrunner so far with senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, along with Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana also standing, while billionaire Michael Bloomberg has also entered the contest late and could be a contender.

Despite the political brickbats, the underlying indicators are encouraging for Trump. The state of the economy is often the pivotal factor in US elections and this remains strong, with historically low unemployment, healthy pay rises and stable inflation.

The Tories in Scotland will also get on with the process of picking a new leader in Scotland after the departure of Ruth Davidson at the end of August last year.

The party needs a new figurehead in place as early as possible in advance of the Holyrood election in May 2021 which may now been seen as a de facto vote on Scotland’s right to stage a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Interim leader Jackson Carlaw is the frontrunner. He headed up the election campaign last year. Although this saw the party lose more than half (seven) of its 13 seats to the SNP, he is widely perceived to have performed strongly. Other potential candidates may include finance spokesman Murdo Fraser, South of Scotland MSP Michelle Ballantyne, and chief whip Maurice Golden.

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At Holyrood, controversial plans to end the current ban on prisoners voting in Scotland will also come into the spotlight in the year ahead. The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) aims to extend the franchise to inmates serving sentences of 12 months or fewer following a court ruling that a complete ban on prisoner voting breached the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It will face opposition from the Tories when it comes back to Parliament in the Spring. 
A crackdown on animal welfare abuse will also be introduced later in the year with MSPs to back tough new laws which will mean prison sentences of up to five years for the most serious offences in Scotland. The Government also wants to introduce unlimited fines and raise the maximum penalties for some wildlife offences as part of the legislation. The changes will also see the introduction of Finn’s Law in Scotland which offers extra protection for service animals, by removing the “self defence” plea from those who attack them.