Tom Peterkin: Ministers prepare for rollercoaster of a year

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon at last month's meeting at 10 Downing Street over Brexit talks. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon at last month's meeting at 10 Downing Street over Brexit talks. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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2017 had its surprises – but with Brexit looming the coming year will be even more unpredictable, writes Tom Peterkin

Recent history tells us that the task of gazing into a crystal ball and trying to predict the political events that will shape the next 12 months can be a somewhat futile exercise.

Imagine if this time last year someone had written that Kezia Dugdale would end up in the Australian jungle retching on pig and ostrich anus, it would have seemed ridiculous.

Similarly what if someone had forecast that Alex Salmond would lose his Westminster seat and end up hosting a chat show on Kremlin-backed Russia Today? No doubt that particular political seer would have been told to throw out their crystal ball with the New Year empties.

So as we look ahead to 2018, perhaps the key lesson that can be learned from the past 12 months is to expect the unexpected.

Nevertheless, it would take a brave fortune-teller in the first few days of the New Year to suggest that 2018 will turn out to be anything like as bizarre as the last few months. But what can be said with some certainty is that the repercussions of many of the strange events of 2017 will linger as the political classes continue to wrestle with the complex machinations of Brexit.

Notwithstanding Ms Dugdale’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, arguably the most cringe-worthy series of public performances by a politician last year came in the biggest reality show of the lot – the General Election.

When she surprised the nation by calling a snap election, Mrs May thought she could strengthen her negotiating hand by taking advantage of the chronic divisions tearing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party apart.

Instead, she proved incapable of fronting a credible election campaign. Her own short-comings were cruelly exposed. Instead of increasing a slender majority, she lost it and is now having to rely on the support of the DUP in a hung parliament.

Therefore Mrs May goes into 2018 with the massive question-mark hanging over her own future still looming large. Having lost her closest advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, she now looks even more exposed with the resignation of her right hand man Damian Green.

Mr Green was one of several casualties as a hugely damaging harassment scandal sweeping through Westminster and Holyrood at the tail end of last year.

But from Mrs May’s point of view, Mr Green’s resignation for making misleading comments about claims that pornography had been found on his computer will be the most telling.

Since their student days at Oxford University, the pair have been strong political allies. Through the political turbulence of last year, he has been a figure upon whom she has relied immensely.

That’s why his departure could be far more difficult for the Prime Minister than that of Michael Fallon, who quit as Defence Secretary when he became caught up in the harassment scandal.

Mr Green’s resignation from the front bench has led to speculation that Mrs May could mix things up a bit by announcing a Cabinet reshuffle. Her options, however, are limited and she goes into 2018 looking fragile.

On the plus side – from her point of view – she, at least, has shown some resilience. Many others would have thrown in the towel in the aftermath of such a General Election. There is also the strange paradox that the precarious nature of her position somehow lends her a little stability.

She may be relying on the DUP, but Arlene Foster’s party are unwilling to rock the boat for fear that destabilising Mrs May’s leadership could lead to Mr Corbyn finding his way to Downing Street. Mrs May’s critics within her own party face the same conundrum.

Despite looking increasingly isolated, the Prime Minister may well manage to limp on – aided by a lack of credible Conservative challengers and a reluctance from others to deal with the complex process of leaving the EU.

As ever in the post- 2016 Brexit referendum world, the thorny challenges posed by EU withdrawal will continue to dominate the UK political scene.

The ticking of the clock towards the March 2019 exit deadline will grow louder throughout the year as Brexit Secretary David Davis and Mrs May attempt to extricate the UK from the EU.

Last month saw a breakthrough that saw both sides agree to a £39 billion divorce bill, an agreement on citizens’ rights and a form of words on the Irish Border that
 was acceptable to both the DUP and the Irish Government. Phase two will see discussions focus on trade with exploratory talks beginning shortly.

Another major part of the negotiations will be the details of the two-year transition deal that Mrs May wants in an effort to avoid a cliff edge Brexit.

European sources have suggested the transition deal might not be thrashed out until October.

In the meantime, keeping a close watch on the Brexit negotiations will be Nicola Sturgeon and her Brexit minister Michael Russell, who will be determined to secure all possible powers coming from the EU to Holyrood.

A constant presence in the background will also be the implications for the Scottish constitutional question. Ms Sturgeon has already had her fingers burnt by linking Brexit to a second bid for Scottish independence.

More recently, she has been more circumspect in the face of an anti-independence backlash. Nevertheless, SNP strategists will be observing every Brexit move closely to see what advantage can be gained for the cause of Scottish independence.

When it comes to non-constitutional matters, Ms Sturgeon’s government faces a number of challenges.

Perhaps the most radical will be its budget, which is due to be passed by parliament in February – assuming the minority administration can secure enough parliamentary support.

Successful passage of the budget will see Scotland go down a radically different road on income tax than the rest of the UK.

For the first time this year Scotland will find out how the public, businesses and investors react to a Scottish economic policy that will see all those paid more than £33,000 pay more income tax – a burden leavened by Derek Mackay’s offer of a £20 per year tax cut for the lower paid.

The Scottish Government’s controversial named person scheme will continue to cast a long shadow over Holyrood. John Swinney, the Education Secretary, having to oversee complicated remedial work in an attempt to make the beleaguered and much delayed plans workable.

Mr Swinney’s reputation as the busiest Cabinet politician in Scotland is unlikely to be diminished by the challenges facing Scottish schools.

How Mr Swinney deals with the teacher recruitment crisis will not only affect the nation’s education system, but how the SNP administration is perceived by the public.

The beginning of May will see a landmark moment on Scottish political history when the minimum pricing for alcohol finally becomes a reality. The policy, designed to tackle Scotland’s drink problem, will finally come to fruition after a five-year legal battle that has seen the Scottish Government successfully take on the drinks industry.

For Ruth Davidson 2018 will be about building on the good progress the Scottish Conservatives made in last year’s General Election when they won 13 seats. But speculation about whether her political future lies at Westminster could prove off-putting – as could any difficulties thrown up by Brexit.

As Scotland’s newest political leader, Richard Leonard faces a crucial year. Uniting a deeply divided party will prove challenging. As an unashamed left-winger, his star is hitched to Jeremy Corbyn and much may depend on how Labour performs at a UK level.