Happy New Year for Keir?

January is hardly the optimal season for camping in Scotland, but with a General Election looming it was only to be expected that the New Year bells would be accompanied by a flurry of political tent pitching.

Rishi Sunak’s beleaguered government is rapidly running out of time to turn things around, but despite Labour’s sustained and substantial lead in the polls, the Tories have not yet thrown in the towel. Although the Prime Minister has indicated a preference for an election in the second half of the year, he could well be bluffing. He’s certainly keeping his options open. Astute observers will have noticed that the date of the Spring Budget 2024 has been brought forward to 6 March, when the Chancellor is widely expected to hand out sweeties for everyone. This is Sunak’s last roll of the dice. If the Spring Budget delivers any significant bounce in the polls, we should be ready for that to be the springboard for a General Election in early May.

Labour’s big lead in the polls looks ever more insurmountable for their opponents and they will calculate that their best bet is simply to ‘haud gaun’, eschew controversy, and keep themselves out of trouble until they have the keys to Number 10. But they also need to inject a little bit of life into their campaign if they want to enthuse and energise their prospective voters. Starmer is presenting himself as a dull establishment figure to reassure the swing voters of middle England that he has no plans to shake anything up, but if and when he becomes Prime Minister, ‘more of the same’ is not going to wash for long with a populace still feeling the pain of high mortgage rates and energy bills, and lamenting the erosion of public services they rely on. He needs to set out a stall for the electorate that amounts to more than ‘we’re not that other lot’ and hone his own distinctive pitch for office. He also needs to remember that ‘Tories always vote’, and if the polls do narrow, differential turnout could eat into that impressive lead.

Humza Yousaf has been fighting difficult headwinds since he became FM last year. He has started 2024 with a series of speeches on the economy in an attempt to refocus attention on opportunities to boost growth and prosperity, and to make good on his commitment to build closer relationships with the business community.  The news this week that a flagship Scottish housebuilder has gone into administration, quickly followed by news of another smaller firm’s collapse, has rather punctured the optimism of that narrative. While no-one could, in all fairness, lay the woes of the house building sector entirely at the Scottish Government’s door, the collapse of not one, but two Scottish housebuilders in quick succession suggests investor confidence may be less than robust in this bellwether sector of the economy that drives productivity. The Scottish Government would be well advised to look very closely at the levers it does have at its disposal to create a more attractive and stable environment for business development.

While domestic politics are likely to preoccupy the minds of observers and pundits alike over the coming months, it’s also worth remembering that it’s an election year in the USA too, with inevitable global repercussions whatever the outcome. With major conflicts ongoing in Ukraine and the Middle East, the potential for escalation could have unpredictable consequences. If you’re toasting Robert Burns on 25th January, you may wish to reflect that, as he put it, ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley.’

Eilidh Whiteford

Senior Advisor

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