“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.”
Winston Churchill’s words to the nation at the end of the 1945 war in Europe. As Parliament approves the EU (Future Relationship) Bill so Boris Johnson might well say the same thing to the country today. The passing of the agreement marks a beginning as well as an end. An end to Britain’s intimate relationship with the EU and the beginning of a close one.
The Prime Minister made it his political purpose to deliver Brexit and an accompanying new agreement with the EU. This he has done. He may reasonably be permitted to pause and reflect with satisfaction on his achievement, but only for a brief period. The challenges that face him and the rest of us dwarf the issue that Parliament has been recalled to approve.
For even as MPs and Peers assemble coronavirus continues to rampage on its indiscriminate and devastating progress. New year school and university returns are suffering significant disruption, the economy continues to be pummelled, families and friends remain cruelly divided, and normal work and social activity remains a distant prospect. The approval of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine is the truly bright and indisputably hopeful news of the day. Our gaze however must rest on the year ahead not the one that is fast passing.
2021 is set to be an even more important political year than 2020 has been. Britain will host both the G20 and COP26. Local elections are expected to be held on 6 May. Across the country a huge swathe of local councils, thirteen directly elected mayors, 40 police and crime commissioners, the London Assembly and Mayoralty, Welsh and Scottish Parliaments will all be keenly fought. This is an unprecedented number of local and regional elections happening at one time and taken together will feel almost like a General Election. Just over a year into the Parliament these elections will be a huge test of public confidence in all the political parties and their leaders. In Scotland the very future of the United Kingdom itself, again, is in question. If Brexiteers persistence over the years demonstrates anything it is if you keep going long enough you can, eventually, achieve what you want.
The government has defined itself against ‘the establishment’, against the status quo. It is an insurgent administration. This is good. Sweeping aside old ways of doing things is always necessary. It is what has been needed to reignite general interest and participation in politics. Post 1997 Britain suffered a form of political constipation which was only uncorked by the Brexit referendum, but governments need to build as well as bulldoze and what we need now is Boris the builder not just Boris the bulldozer.
To make ‘levelling up’ a reality we need to rebuild confidence around reformed institutions; to invest in educational as well as physical infrastructure; reform and enhance the City as a place to do business; deliver a credible economic plan to boost business, encourage investment and reduce the ballooning national debt; to create the conditions where science, research and tech innovation can flourish; and establish a foreign policy which renews Britain’s credibility and authority on the world stage. All this while continuing to contain the virus and roll out the vaccines, which will take up much of the first half of the year ahead.
So the briefest of periods of rejoicing for the Prime Minister and then for him and for us back to it.