Greater stability in the UK and geopolitical turbulence

2022 will be a year spoken of for decades as a byword for counterintuitive instability in the UK. And by comparison, in 2023 the UK might be one of those political systems in the world to become less chaotic – certainly in comparison to the partly self-inflicted annus horribilis that preceded it.

Looking ahead, both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are confronted by more shared challenges than either would care to admit. The leaders of both main parties have a strategic need to prioritise their own versions of reassurance over radical change. Beneath fairly brutal polling numbers, Rishi Sunak still rises above his damaged party’s record. He will know, however, that his reputation, and his narrowing chances of winning a general election, will not survive a further significant shock.

What has happened to the Conservatives famed discipline? There are signs that discipline is beginning to fracture in the Conservative Parliamentary Party – disaffected Boris Johnson backers are organising on populist issues – their MPs haven’t entirely lost hope. However, the UK is set for the harshest fiscal tightening of any of the big world economies. And each new measure that reassures international markets also serves as a reminder to voters of who helped create the storm that now batters them.

An early election would be a ‘brave’ decision. With such a challenging economic and political backdrop for the government, an early election is highly unlikely. Some of his advisers are advocating that they run the clock down to early 2025. Sunak has defined himself as not being either of his predecessors but it’s not entirely clear what he wants to achieve as PM, other than to be PM.

Labour has been gifted a lead, what will they do with it? Keir Starmer has so far also defined himself in terms of who he is not and what he is against and 2023 will see him share a story about what he is for and where he would take the UK. Labour insiders acknowledge that they have in large part been gifted the current enormous poll lead. But Starmer and his top team have had to demonstrate the nous to capitalise from the government’s difficulties. Other incarnations of Labour leader would have found a way not to. Expect Labour to continue to be ruthless in the areas where their strategic position is fragile: national security, immigration, stewardship of the public finances. Continually distancing himself from Corbynism is a powerful proxy for all of this.

Both will be haunted by leaders past. Each will also be faced by big decisions about their predecessors. At some point in 2023 there will be a moment of managed controversy as Jeremy Corbyn is prevented from standing as a Labour candidate in the election. He may threaten to stand as an independent candidate for London mayoralty in response. In a mirror of this choice, Sunak will also face decision about his response to the publication of the Partygate inquiry on whether Boris Johnson misled parliament. Both leaders may choose to burnish their own reputations by burying their troublesome predecessors, despite the risk of inflaming internal criticism.

Both can’t be right on it wanting an economy election, but both can be wrong. Sunak and Starmer also now claim that they want the next election to be about the economy. Keir Starmer has profited from the current economic malaise but increasingly the public finances could become a problem for him too. The Tories may not be able to change the economic weather and so instead they will try to force Labour into economic choices. But so far Starmer’s Labour has studiously chosen not to jump into those pretty obvious traps. Ditto on strikes.

Brexit and Scexit will continue to be a thing. While the main parties will compete over credibility, identity politics will continue to shape politics. Nigel Farage is hinting at another tribute act. Nicola Sturgeon hopes to use the next election as a de facto vote on independence, though a special spring conference may see her dilute that commitment. All the while, the Lib Dems hope to capture one-nation Conservatives in Surrey and the South West. New entrants to the political market may compete for the affections of impatient Remainers.

What of the world beyond Britain?

Whisper it but are Liberal values back in vogue? The Arden team also works for inspiring election candidates and progressive causes across the world – so here’s our take on international events. The heroic performance of Ukraine’s defenders has transformed the geopolitical environment. The international struggle between autocracy and democracy now has heroes and martyrs. After a generation when Western leaders were shy of talking about the values behind their foreign policy, lest they seem like they hadn’t learnt the lessons of Iraq, it is again at least acceptable to talk about liberal democratic values.

This after years when all talk was of Western decline and of China creating a new autocratic model that would dominate this century just as democracies had dominated the previous one. However, as an old year closes it is anti-democratic forces who appear weaker than when it opened. Dictators were supposed to have an advantage when it came to bold action unburdened by a free electorate.

Putin is failing because of Putinism’s failure. Many wars falter because the victors fail to plan for peace. The paranoid kleptocracy that is Putinism is failing in this one because of his abject failure to plan for war. His catastrophic failure to dominate a much smaller neighbour in the combat or information space has overturned perceptions of the strengths of autocrats. Meanwhile China’s mismanagement of Covid, sluggish growth and increasingly oppressive rule has also come at a cost with displays of dissent at levels not seen since Tiananmen.

2023 the US will be resolute, but what about 2024? The global struggle between autocracy and democracies will intensify as the beginning of the 2024 Presidential election cycle encourages both sides in Washington to take a stronger position towards China and, in Trump’s case, a weaker position on Russia.

Donald Trump’s slide in the Republican primary polling will reassure allies, and especially Kyiv that a swing back Trumpist foreign policy is less likely – though a DeSantis Presidency may still be a cause for nervousness. Ukraine will need much deeper and broader support in the year ahead. Western leaders will continue to claim a role as an enabler of Ukrainian stoicism. But a costly stalemate makes for a less attractive narrative – all the ongoing economic pain without the momentum of Ukrainian gains. However, despite the ongoing costs, it is likely that support for Ukraine will fray in some capitals rather than unravel next year.

Where does India see itself? India will seek to carefully maintain their tradition of non-alignment. The attraction of cheap Russian oil and the strategic need to prevent Russia from aligning with its strategic foes in Beijing has contributed to India being reluctant to pick sides in geopolitical disputes. However, after a year when India hosted the G20 and landed a rover on the Moon, expect Delhi to continually contrast India’s open democracy with a closed China. In particular, the mountain border between the two countries is worth keeping an eye on as a place where economic and philosophical rivalry might accidentally unintentionally morph into something less benign.

Other populists will try to get in on the act. While Russia’s war in Ukraine rightly horrified the world, other non kinetic conflicts abound. In Hungary, Orban will continue to do Putin’s bidding inside the EU. From Armenia to the Central Asian ‘stans’ the absence of Russia as the regional power will embolden Turkey, cause old rivalries to flare up and new alliances to form. In Iran, the protests are likely to be met by increasingly brutal crackdowns.

And what of the many others? In the developing world, where economies and governments have less capacity to deal with the consequences of a global recession, expect public anger to spill over onto the streets of some capitals. Interest rate rises in the United States have economic and political consequences in Latin America, in particular. And all the time in the background the continuing climate crisis will fuel movements of armies, migrants and economies.

The confidence of fools. It can sometimes be foolhardy to make confident predictions in such an uncertain world. Early in 2022 very few would have suggested that the West’s abject failure in Afghanistan this year would then be overshadowed by Western resolve in Europe. And no-one foresaw that this would be the year when the UK would have three PMs of the same party for the first time in its history.

An inspiration from an unlikely source. Looking ahead to a new year, we are reminded of the boast of former England footballer Paul Gascoigne: “I don’t make predictions and I never will.”

Perhaps the safest and most unwelcome prediction is that 2022 will live long – albeit uninvited – in our collective memories.