The year ends much as it began, with Covid cases soaring and people across the UK being told to avoid socialising if they can and get vaccinated as soon as possible. Once again, much hope rests on the success of vaccines – and impressive promises to ramp up the booster programme.
While that may yet represent a considerable achievement for this government, politically the ground has shifted over the course of 2021. Just a few months on from a celebratory party conference dominated by the prime minister, Boris Johnson has engineered a difficult end to the year. A huge Conservative rebellion against the introduction of ‘Plan B’ measures was followed just days later by a substantial defeat in the North Shropshire by-election, the vote itself having been triggered by No.10’s badly mishandled effort a month prior to intervene in the suspension of the former incumbent, Owen Paterson for paid lobbying. The result saw the Liberal Democrats oust the Conservatives from a ‘true blue’ seat held continuously since 1830.
But while so much has happened in the last few weeks of the year, the whole of 2021 has, for the Institute for Government, provided much to think and write about. The IfG’s deputy director rounds up some of the biggest areas of focus this year:
Inevitably Covid has dominated our work, as it has much of government. In February, we assessed the government’s hotel quarantine plans, designed to stop new variants entering the UK. A partial quarantine policy, we said, would be “likely to prove a costly failure – little more than expensive window dressing.” In April, we warned that “the government’s failure… to engage with fundamental questions over how vaccine passports would work could harm confidence in the government’s approach.” The mood in this month’s Commons debate, and the vote that followed, suggest that even after a comparatively quiet summer the government has failed to get its house in order in relation to these key aspects of Covid policy.
In April, we also called for the coronavirus inquiry, into the government’s handling of the crisis posed by the pandemic, to be established in May, giving it time to determine its terms of reference and complete preparatory work – such as appointing a secretary and counsel and drafting its procedures – before beginning its investigations when parliament returned from summer recess on 6 September. But it was not until the end of the year that the government appointed Baroness Heather Hallett DBE to chair the public inquiry – which is unlikely to begin work before next spring.
The pandemic has seen some major successes, such as the initial vaccine rollout and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – praised in several of our reports. But there have also been some major failures, with the government’s approach during the pandemic to schools, and particularly exams, at the fore. In summer we described “the government’s failure – indeed refusal – to make contingency plans for schools and exams in the summer of 2020 [as] the most unforgiveable aspect of its handling of education during the coronavirus pandemic.”
This time around, the education department has poured funds into schools to help plug gaps created by staff absences, albeit with little time to process new staff and clear safeguarding requirements before the start of the January term. But while the education secretary has written to schools to warn of the possibility of possible school closures, little has been said publicly on the matter. With the health secretary offering “no guarantees” that schools would remain open, this is a serious concern.
Our three annual reports revealed the huge impact that the Covid crisis has had on the way government, parliament and public services work. Our January edition of Whitehall Monitor assessed how dramatically the pandemic changed the way government spent money, made decisions and designed policy. In September, Parliamentary Monitor showed how the efforts of MPs and peers to hold ministers to account during the 2019–21 session had been impeded by ministers’ frequent use of emergency powers and side-lining of parliament.
In October, Performance Tracker – produced in partnership with CIPFA – revealed the sheer scale of backlogs across public services, in elective care, criminal courts, children’s social care and schools. We called on the chancellor to release funds to tackle these backlogs sooner rather than later, and he frontloaded spending increases at the spending review. The 2021 spending review was more generous than any of the multi-year spending reviews since 2004 for day-to-day spending and the government allocated most public services enough money to maintain standards – the real constraint the government now faces is whether services can find enough staff to tackle backlogs.
Differing approaches to Covid have seen relations between the UK’s four nations come under strain over the last two years, though it is Brexit and its aftermath that is the fundamental cause of the fractious state of relations. Giving speeches at the IfG, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, and John Swinney, Scotland’s deputy first minister, set out their cases for fundamental reform devolution and the union. The Scottish independence question has not gone away either – May’s Scottish parliament elections returned, if narrowly, a pro-independence majority – but that has not made the choices involved any easier.
Breaking away from the UK would, we found, leave Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all facing sizeable fiscal deficits, while in Scotland’s case in particular “any currency choice… would require its government to bring borrowing down to a sustainable level and commit to low and stable inflation”. The question of how an independent Scotland would borrow itself is far from straightforward – while ‘at ground level’ the country would need to establish a border regime with England for the first time in centuries, at least if the SNP fulfilled its ambition to lead Scotland back into the EU.
The UK government could do more to improve relations with Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff Bay. In July, we warned that the UK government’s post-Brexit UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) – which would replace EU ‘structural funds’ – risked damaging trust between the UK and devolved administrations and set out how the government could adopt a more collaborative approach. The UKSPF is part of a wider pattern of UK ministers taking control of more public spending decisions within the devolved nations, much to the frustration of the devolved administrations. As secretary of state in the new levelling up department, Michael Gove also retains responsibility for relations with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Whether he inclines towards collaboration or confrontation will therefore set the tone for the UK government’s overall approach to managing the union.
The other big responsibility resting with Gove’s new department is also likely to prove difficult. The government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ policy remains largely unexplained, lacking as we said in September “clear objectives, with policies often contradicting ministerial rhetoric about decentralising power”. In December, we also called for the government to publish a “devolution framework”, clarifying how devolution deals with county areas will be negotiated and implemented. With the long-awaited levelling up white paper delayed again until next year, these questions remain unanswered.
The government has offered more clarity about how it intends to achieve its other overarching priority: net zero. In October, just before hosting the COP26 UN climate summit, it published a 368-page strategy setting out a market-led, techno-optimist vision that plays down the need for people to adjust their own behaviour.
The strategy broke new ground in several areas; the government now has a set of nearer-term targets – to fully decarbonise the power system by 2035, to end new gas boiler sales from 2035 and to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030 – that will guide the transition. But big gaps remain. For example there was little sign in the strategy of a clear vision for how the agricultural sector will reach net zero.
There is also much work to do work out how to deliver on the policy ambition announced in the strategy. There is a huge task to ready the electricity grid and charging networks for an electric vehicle fleet. On heat and buildings, the path between spurring innovation and rapidly scaling up installations remains similarly undefined. We explored these challenges in a special one-day conference, and have argued that stronger governance arrangements will be needed if we are to stay on track. The Treasury also needs to play a key role: in October we set out how the chancellor could design a “coherent tax strategy to help the UK transition to a zero carbon economy.”
Another story has dominated British politics throughout 2021. Back in April, in the wake of the Greensill scandal, we criticised the weaknesses in a standards system in which a “patchwork of enforcement bodies oversee a range of rules on standards, ethics and access”. In July, we warned that the ministerial code was being undermined by the prime minister and required urgent reform.
These issues were brought into sharp relief in November when the government attempted to overturn the Commons Standards Committee’s recommendation that Conservative MP Owen Paterson be suspended for a breach of parliamentary rules. While the Paterson row played out in parliament, the IfG held a one-day conference on standards in public life – and the rules and systems meant to uphold them – with a keynote speech by Jonathan Evans, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Lord Evans described the government’s attempts to overhaul parliament’s standards body as a “very serious and damaging moment for parliament and public standards in this country” arguing that “…the political system in this country does not belong to one party or even to one government.” Later that day, the government dropped its plans.
A few weeks’ later Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, came to the IfG to set out the opposition’s proposals for overhauling the standards system, including the establishment of an independent Integrity and Ethics Commission – a major intervention that, to the surprise of the watching media, was almost instantly overshadowed by the breaking news of Labour’s reshuffle.
As the year draws to a close, the latest and most incendiary scandal remains firmly in the headlines, with allegations of lockdown-breaking parties in No.10 in 2020. The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, has stood down from investigating the matter after reports of his own office’s parties, but the inquiry’s findings should still be published as soon as possible. That report, along with lingering questions over Lord Geidt’s investigation into the refurbishment of No.10, mean that the topic of standards in government – and the rules that guide them – will surely remain centre stage in 2022. It is disappointing that the government is yet to respond to both Nigel Boardman’s review of the Greensill lobbying episode and the independent report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the public standards landscape.
Brexit was back in the headlines at the end of the year with the resignation of Lord Frost, Boris Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, leaving large gaps in the UK’s post-Brexit domestic policy agenda. Two years have passed since the 2019 general election swept Boris Johnson back to 10 Downing Street with an 80-seat majority – on a manifesto built on the promise to Get Brexit Done. While the UK has left the EU, the Northern Ireland protocol has proved to be a continued source of tension – in July we warned that a new approach to the UK internal market would be needed to avoid a collision course between the UK government and the devolved nations which could erode support for the union.
And two years after the last general election, and two years, perhaps, from the next one, we have undertaken a ‘half-time analysis’ on the 2019 Conservative manifesto. In April, when we first took a stock check of the government’s manifesto progress, one national political editor described the report as "the most readable 80-page think-tank report I’ve seen”. Our updated analysis, the last IfG report of 2021, found that 55% of the government’s most important pledges, and just over half in total, have been completed or are on track to be completed within the parliament. Within the context of the pandemic, this is to be commended.
However, some equally important pledges have been abandoned – not to raise national insurance is perhaps most politically damaging – while many others are still be ticked off, from ambitious promises on health and ‘Global Britain’ to net zero. There is much for the government to do in 2022. It will be hoping, like all of us, that the next year does not end in the same way as the one just gone.