Politics in a pandemic

Stephen Friel is a Business Manager at HSBC and a member of the SFE Young Professionals Committee 

In the fourth event of the highly successful Scottish Financial Enterprise Young Professionals Leadership Series, Michael Crow, NatWest Group’s Head of Public Affairs, and Mark Diffley, Director at Mark Diffley Consultancy, facilitated an interactive event on ‘Politics in a Pandemic’ to 70 young professionals.

With COVID-19, Brexit, climate change and the ongoing trade war dominating headlines of late, the SFE YP network was eagerly awaiting a lively discussion on the current political landscape.  Michael and Mark didn’t disappoint. Their combined 40+ years’ experience in politics was evident from the start and it was refreshing to hear such strong opinions being delivered whilst at the same time inviting others on the call to weigh in on the debate and ask questions.

Here are some of the key discussion points:

The Conservative Government

Both Michael and Mark were in agreement that navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has not been this Government’s finest hour. Just ten months after winning a general election by a landslide, the inexperienced Government has delivered numerous U-turns, broken promises and missed targets around the handling of the pandemic. If there was an election tomorrow however the Tories would win as Labour is not making enough of an impact yet. Keir Starmer is playing the long-game.  

Throughout its tenure there has been a recurring theme of the UK government folding under pressure. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was adamant there would be no U-turn over the use of the controversial algorithm to downgrade the A-Level results of 40% of pupils in England. The Government insisted that free school meals would not be extended over the summer holidays (ironically that one only lasted until lunchtime). Matt Hancock set a target of 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day by 1 May. The UK wasn’t even half way on 28April, then reported factually incorrect figures when they were announced as over 100,000 on the 1May. Then there was the promise of the hybrid Track and Trace app. Embarrassingly, Apple hadn’t been consulted about the plans.

Mark has vast experience as a pollster and concluded that people are happy to accept some U-turns if we end up in the right place, however the consistency of this Government folding under pressure has led to a lack of confidence with voters resulting in 45% thinking the country is moving in the wrong direction.



So what’s next? Are there any positives?

Michael outlined the importance of the Government getting its agenda back on track however rising unemployment, a COVID-19 second wave and a possible IndyRef2 lie on the horizon as potential obstacles to achieving this.

Whitehall reform is an area of focus for the Government. The country has always had a professional civil service, but some, like Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove, believe it is struggling to stand the test of time with a framework designed in the 19th century incapable of facing the challenges of the digital age. The civil service needs greater diversity and clearer routes between policy formulation and implementation. Many Tories believe Whitehall’s processes are extremely cumbersome which is working against the Tory Government. However, any reforms must pay respect to the history of a system renowned for its political impartiality.

You also have to wonder what role the Dominic Cummings debacle will play in the next election. The UK crashing out of the ERM in 1992 damaged the Tories economic credibility and played a big role in the 1997 Labour landslide. Cummings’ debacle got very strong cut-through – will it too play a central role in the next GE in 2024? History has shown people can forgive governments. Nicola Sturgeon has certainly made many mistakes, however she presents herself as capable and confident. The UK government is in danger of seeming incompetent.  

Financially, the Government can build on the success of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. There was a 20.4% quarter-on-quarter contraction in the economy in Q2, however the gradual recovery continues with 8.7% growth in June and 6.6% growth in July. Rishi Sunak continues to solidify the position of the UK’s most popular politician although the underlying thought on everyone’s mind is how will he go about recovering the cost of the expensive, yet popular, initiatives to soften the financial blow of COVID-19?

Sign up for the next Leadership Series event

Our next Leadership Series event on Thursday 15 October will look at maintaining personal development and staying visible in a virtual environment with SFE Board Member Vida Rudkin of Morgan Stanley. Registration and details available here.

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