What will the autumn hold for policy-making in Westminster?

By Rhiannon Sanders, member of the YCC

While this summer has been busier than usual, anyone in and around the Westminster village will have been grateful for getting a bit of a break compared with the last twelve months – and will now be gearing up for what promises to be a packed parliamentary timetable in the autumn.

Throughout the summer the opening stages of Brexit negotiations have produced calls for clarity from the UK on some of its key negotiating stances, and the flurry of announcements seen over the last few weeks on topics like the Customs Union and the Irish border proves that Whitehall is pressing on with the job. Once Parliament has fully returned from the summer and conference recesses, both Houses will be ready for lengthy debates on the Government’s recent announcements, and the eight Brexit Bills introduced in the Queen’s Speech, which promises for an eventful few months.

Starting with the second reading debate of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill this week, this will inevitably entail a lot of late nights, with the Whips’ offices on both sides pulling MPs from events around London to make sure they’re present for tight votes. But regardless of whether it is Brexit legislation or not, every vote will count, as any losses on the part of the Government will be construed as signs of its weakness willing to be used by members of the Cabinet, backbenches and Opposition alike – and it will only take six Conservative MPs voting against the Government to incur these defeats.

The speculation about the future Conservative leadership will continue unabated, but if defeats do come the Government’s way, sensationalist headlines of possible candidates will emerge without evidence of their suitability to back it up. The party could keep a seemingly unified front at times like PMQs, while pressing on with anonymised comments from the backbenches and briefing wars in the press to determine who will emerge to contest the leadership. If Moggmentum is to be believed, the Conservatives’ grassroots are poised to return the eccentric Jacob Rees-Mogg as their leader in the same manner that Corbyn was delivered to Labour two years ago.

However, the reality is that while Conservative MPs are going to be jumpy over the coming months and will be unforgiving of any more mistakes from May, they will not trigger a leadership contest without a candidate ready who can win support from the backbenches, party membership and public alike. This may well delay a leadership contest further into the future than anticipated immediately after the election, ultimately providing more continuity in policy and personnel at the top of government.

Legislation and consultations are planned for issues beyond Brexit, but the Government will likely want to procrastinate on some of the big issues, such as finding a long-term solution for social care funding, to avoid anything that could be electorally toxic. This will further elevate the role of Select Committees in scrutinising policy (or areas where there is a lack of it). With many Committee chairs being re-elected without opposition some key inquiries that were halted before the election are likely to pick up where they left off, such as the Health Committee’s inquiry into controversial Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs).

For lobbyists this means that, more than ever, the industry needs to make sure that messaging put together for clients is clear, concise and compelling, as the time and attention of parliamentarians and civil servants is likely to be pressured. This does not mean that policymakers will be unwilling to listen to input from stakeholders though, with pressure to take forward policy that has the approval of affected stakeholders. The unpredictability of when there will be another election and the narrow parliamentary arithmetic that both main parties are working with also means that we should engage with parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, as issues that can achieve cross-party consensus will again prove more popular with voters.

But crucially, this unpredictability requires patience – meetings may be postponed, debates may be rescheduled, events may have low turnouts if they coincide with an important vote. The public affairs industry is not likely to see a return to business as normal for some time, and anything deemed a “new normal” could change as quickly as it emerged. Just try and remember, there’s just under 570 days until Brexit.

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