Politics after the pandemic

9 June 2020

By Professor Anand Menon (Director, The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs, Kings College London)

Politics is back. From the exchanges at PMQs, to the bickering among Tory backbenchers, to Jeremy Corbyn claiming he was right all along, things seem to be returning to something approaching normal. Yet what is normal politics these days? And how might the pandemic impact on it? I see three broad trends that will shape politics in the short to medium term.

In the first place, politics will continue to trump considerations of aggregate economics. Brexit is a case in point. The Government is willing to negotiate a ‘thin’ trade deal with the EU in order to ensure the UK’s regulatory autonomy. The Prime Minister’s key adviser, David Frost, underlined in a speech in Brussels earlier this year that the Government is willing to accept what he euphemistically referred to as a ‘one-off cost from the introduction of friction at a customs and regulatory border.’ But let us be clear, modelling done by the UK in a Changing Europe estimated that ‘one off cost’ to be in the region of 5% of GDP over ten years, without factoring in any additional impact generated by a reduction in immigration.

Moreover, the Government has remained adamant that it will not seek an extension to the transition period that is due to end on 31 December. On the one hand, this makes it harder to achieve a deal (talks have already been delayed and disrupted by the pandemic). On the other, it means that, come what way, businesses will have to adapt either to a thin deal or no deal by the end of the year, just as they are also dealing with the economic fallout of the pandemic. No wonder the CBI has begun to ramp up the rhetoric.

Politics, then, is the name of the game. But politics too is changing. The 2017 election provided clear hints that social values were becoming more important in voter choice than they had perhaps been before. And this was reinforced in 2019, when the data suggest that 82% of those who voted Tory were leave supporters. Leave supporters are united not by where they stand on the left-right spectrum, but rather by socially conservative values.

In other words, the Conservatives have created a relatively coherent values coalition. And there are good reasons to think that they are more united on social values than on traditional left-right issues. After all, the parliamentary party itself is made up not only of traditional small state Thatcherites, but also of those who believe in the need for ‘levelling’ up, large-scale infrastructure investments, and a far greater role for the state.

The opposite is true of Labour. Relatively united around a left of centre economic programme, the Party is riven when it comes to social values: Hampstead versus Hull is about immigration, trans rights and the like, rather than redistribution.

So it makes sense for the Government to focus on values. We’ve seen a hint of this when it comes to the determination to impose a quarantine on those entering the country. For all the dismay this has caused amongst Tory MPs, and for all the economic pain it may inflict, being seen to tighten the borders plays to a values audience. Expect more of this value signalling going forward, in debates not about the role of the state in the economy, but about the importance of prioritising the economy over climate change and, of course, immigration.

Finally, as a direct result of the pandemic, the other shift we might see is
heightened salience of foreign policy issues. COVID19 has brought to the fore debates about resilience and the need for national self-sufficiency. It has also made China a touchstone issue for many MPs. Whilst foreign policy has not in the past been an issue with much in the way of political and particularly electoral import, the early signs are that this might be about to change as, for instance, Conservative MPs express strong and contrasting views on China’s role in building our infrastructure, or the rights of those from Hong Kong to settle here.

Politics, then, is back. But it might sound and feel slightly different from the politics we knew before.

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Professor Anand Menon is Director of academic think tank The UK in a Changing Europe. He’s also Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings College London. He is co-author of Brexit and British Politics and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of the European Union.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.