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The politics forecast for 2023: A crisis in the Tory party and a Labour reshuffle

Predictions for the year ahead from the New Statesman’s deputy political editor.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Nicola Sturgeon will set out a timetable for her exit

Previous predictions that Scotland’s First Minister will be forced out of office have proven premature, but in 2023 the SNP is looking at a very different landscape. The Supreme Court ruling that the Scottish government does not have the legal power to hold a second referendum is a setback and there is a sense that the First Minister’s grip on the party machine is weakening; whether that is demonstrated by Stephen Flynn effectively ousting her ally Ian Blackford as the party’s leader at Westminster and seeking more freedom from Edinburgh, or through the divisions in Holyrood over Sturgeon’s trans rights policy. Is Sturgeon, a careful politician who has garnered respect for playing by the rules, the person to lead the party’s de facto referendum election campaign (especially given that many within the party acknowledge that it looks doomed to fail)? Sturgeon will have been SNP leader for nine years in November, and there are rumours she is interested in a role at the UN. If she chooses to remain for one last term, it will be with a succession plan taking shape.

Keir Starmer will shake up his leadership team

The long-rumoured shadow cabinet reshuffle will happen early in 2023. This will give the Labour leader time to establish a new leadership team he can showcase at September’s party conference – likely to be the last before the general election. Starmer will want a punchier front bench willing to talk about public service reform. New roles are predicted for shadow ministers Thangam Debbonaire, Alison McGovern and Peter Kyle, while Darren Jones, who has been chairing the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, is seen as having earned a promotion. There are doubts over the roles of Jim McMahon (environment), Lucy Powell (digital, culture, media and sport) and Steve Reed (justice). The Labour leader, as ruthless as he is pragmatic, may even be pondering a break with the past and moving on from Ed Miliband, the former party leader, and Yvette Cooper.

More MPs will defect from the Tory party

Richard Tice’s Reform Party is said to be vigorously courting some of the Conservative Party’s right-wingers – such as Lee Anderson, Jonathan Gullis and Mark Jenkinson – with promises of a job if they fail to get elected. Whether or not the Red Wall Tories would be willing to make the jump without Nigel Farage returning to the party that he founded in 2018 (as the Brexit Party) is an open question. Conservative MPs in the south-west may be tempted to move to Ed Davey’s Lib Dems to avoid election humiliation. And with a Labour tide expected to engulf the north of England and the Midlands, others may follow Christian Wakeford in joining Starmer. Those left behind may look to would-be party leaders, such as Tom Tugendhat, Kemi Badenoch or Penny Mordaunt – who won’t not be shy of profile-building if there is an impending Tory defeat – for hope for the future.

Rishi Sunak will replace Jeremy Hunt as chancellor

It’s a safe bet that May’s local elections will be disastrous for the Conservatives, even if some of the effect is muted by the introduction of voter ID affecting turnout. Sunak, who was criticised for promoting too many old faces when he took over after Liz Truss’s downfall, may refresh his team. Labour’s portrayal of him as weak and too reliant on ministers from a different generation is a view shared by some younger Tories. They don’t feel represented by the former Cameroons in the cabinet, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt among them. The justification for Hunt’s appointment was to steady the markets and, given that 2023 will see the middle class squeezed as never before, a switch at the Treasury is not improbable. Sunak is believed to have favoured Oliver Dowden, a close ally, for the role of chancellor.

The Northern Ireland Protocol will be settled – but Brexit will not

Since the Northern Ireland Protocol came into effect in 2021, it has been a cause of tension in the province. However, sources suggest that in 2023, with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, there will be a mood for compromise. Given the significance of the date, Sunak will want to harness the goodwill rather than pursue a divisive strategy that irritates both the EU and Joe Biden’s administration. But problems remain. Both Labour and the Tories want to avoid reopening the wounds caused by the 2016 referendum, but denying the adverse effects of Brexit is not sustainable. Conservatives are already starting to look at regulatory reform in the UK. Will Labour figures begin to talk more about how they would improve the government’s Brexit deal? Silence is not an option.

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The world in 2023: read more of our writers’ predictions
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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege