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If current affairs over the past week could be summed up in one word, ‘drama’ would be a leading candidate. Stalled trains, geopolitical chess matches and historic election outcomes have all served to ‘shake things up’ at a time where the ‘normal’ news schedule has become comparatively frenzied. This week’s blog explores these matters further and considers their implications going forward.

Strike that, we’re staying home

Passengers in England, Scotland and Wales have faced widespread disruption this week as 40,000 RMT members working for Network Rail and thirteen train operating companies staged a mass strike, bringing networks to a standstill. The dispute is over pay, working conditions and proposed modernisation plans, along with the issues of job losses.

The Government is planning to change the law to enable businesses to supply temporary agency workers to cover for staff on strike during industrial action. Trade unions and the Labour party have branded this a ‘recipe for disaster’, as agency staff will not necessarily have the same training and ultimately could curtail the power of strike action.

The RMT is blaming ministers for the collapse of talks to prevent strike action, accusing the transport secretary, Grant Shapps of ‘wrecking’ negotiations by refusing to allow Network Rail to withdraw redundancy threats. Shapps insisted he has had no involvement in the talks and has not agreed to RMT requests to meet. Tensions also rose earlier this week when Chris Philp (a minister in the Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport) and Grant Shapps accused the RMT and their general secretary, Mick Lynch, of walking out of talks at the weekend to go and protest. Mick Lynch said on several news programmes that this was a lie and that he was ready to talk whenever there was an opportunity.

Strike action is set to continue until the weekend, with further disruption planned for later in the summer if demands are not met. Further tube strikes as well as potential strikes from nurses and teachers over pay and working conditions, are also expected later this year.

Vive l’élection dramatique

Legislative elections were held in France this week to elect 577 members of the National Assembly. This follows the presidential election in April, where Emmanuel Macron came out on top. His alliance – Ensemble - remains the largest force in the French parliament, but lost its overall majority (with a 100-seat loss), due to a far-right surge, along with a new leftist coalition, that banded together to take seats away from the president. He will now need to try and forge further pacts to get laws passed, making the prospect of his promised reforms a distant possibility.

The main story of the elections was the success of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), which jumped from only eight MPs in the last parliament to a staggering 89 following the results - a historic total for the party. This number of MPs gives the party significant speaking rights in parliament, as well as representation on parliament committees. RN will be able to launch parliamentary investigations and challenge bills before the constitutional court, which is likely to come into play over the next five years.

Nupes, the leftist coalition, more than doubled its total of MPs to 131, making them the largest opposition force in parliament. They utilised election pacts in constituencies, banding together behind a single candidate so as to not split the left vote, which proved very effective. However, it is a very broad church, and severe differences in opinion among Nupes over things like EU nuclear power, may kill off unity in the group rendering it vulnerable to Emmanuel Macron’s influence and temptation to vote with Ensemble.

Going forward, Macron could seek a formal pact with another party to get his agenda through, or work through on a bill-by-bill basis. It is possible that if no work can be done, a snap election will be called to break the deadlock - potentially within months.

Don’t EU want me?

After the war in Ukraine broke out earlier this year, within days, Ukraine applied to be an EU candidate, a move which has since been publicly welcomed by state leaders and governments across Europe. Yesterday, at a Brussels summit, Ukraine was formally approved. The process has moved at record speed, reflecting the mood of support across Europe. However, Ukraine will not be able to fully integrate or begin many of the processes necessary to become a full member state, until the war has concluded.

Becoming a candidate nation is only the first step in joining the EU and some countries like Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, have been waiting a long time with no success. Ukraine is likely therefore to also have to wait for some time.

Vsevolod Chentsov, the head of Ukraine’s mission to the EU, said that ‘this war basically united us with the EU on all possible levels: government to government, but mainly people to people.’ He added that Ukraine is ‘not a strange country, we are not strange people. We are the same, we are sharing the same understanding of this world.’ Ukraine is hoping that they can fast-track the membership process to receive much more aid from EU countries and that the prospect of Ukraine becoming a member, serves to deter Vladimir Putin from his campaign of violence and destruction.
In related news, Europeans have been told to prepare for Russia turning off the gas this winter, to increase their leverage against Europe but also in retaliation to Europe’s support of Ukraine. This could accelerate the already present gas crisis, raising prices further at a time when people are struggling to pay their bills and heat their homes.

By-by, constituency majority

Two by-elections took place this week - one in Tiverton and Honiton and one in Wakefield. They were widely touted as a test for Boris Johnson, who is recovering from a bruising no-confidence vote and whose premiership is looking beyond precarious. While pollsters of all persuasions were predicting a tough day for the Conservatives, the outcomes of the by-elections still took many by surprise.

In Tiverton and Honiton, where the Conservatives previously held a 24,000 majority, the Liberal Democrats capitalised on the party’s fleeting fortunes to orchestrate an emphatic victory. After watching his party achieve a 29.9% swing, gaining over 50% of the vote and securing a 6,144 majority for their candidate Richard Foord, Sir Ed Davey took little time to rub salt into Conservative wounds. Hailing the victory as ‘the biggest Tory majority ever overturned in a by-election in British election history’, Davey welcomed the outcome of the by-election and expressed his view that the result showed that people ‘were saying Boris Johnson must go’. The Lib Dem victory is all the more significant, given that the constituency has been exclusively Conservative since it was created in 1997. Moreover, the fact that it has been almost 99 years since the Conservatives last lost a parliamentary election in the Tiverton and Honiton area, adds to the ‘historic’ credentials of the Conservative defeat. The key question is whether the party’s struggles will stop there. As a former heartland for the Liberal Democrats prior to the 2015 general election, observers both blue and yellow will be conscious that the disillusioned Conservative vote could hold the key to a Lib Dem renaissance in the South West of England.  

At the other end of the country, Labour comfortably ousted the Tories in Wakefield. The seat is one of the ‘red wall’ seats that turned blue at the last election after backing Labour for 87 years straight, but it is now back in Labour’s hands. This is Labour’s first by-election gain since 2012, bringing the total number of Labour MPs to 200. Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, said the Conservatives were ‘imploding’, as he celebrated the results.

The knock-on effects of the by-elections can already be seen, with Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowden, resigning in the early hours of Friday morning saying that ‘someone must take responsibility’ for the losses, and that voters were ‘disappointed by recent events’.  Boris Johnson, in his reaction to the events, pledged to ‘keep going’ as prime minister but said he would listen to voters more closely. The decision may well be taken out of his hands however, as senior Tories are already publicly questioning if he can stay.  Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, who has long-called for Boris Johnson to go, said these results were ‘another vote of no-confidence in a prime minister that ought to honourably, this morning, be re-considering his position’. Not the kind of language the prime minister wants to hear.

Tory MPs in marginal seats, particularly in the South West, will now be feeling nervous as the country inches closer to an eventual general election, probably going to be held in late 2023 or early 2024. The resurgence of the Lib Dems represents a real problem, especially for someone like Dominic Raab, the lord chancellor, who is projected to lose his seat at the next election, as the Lib Dems nip at his heels in his marginal seat.

These by-election wins also demonstrate the power of an anti-Boris Johnson message for opposition campaigners.  A frequent topic of conversation on the doorstep, Tory campaigners will not feel buoyed by having to take this latest blow as they attempt to halt the coalescence of the left, with left-leaning parties now achieving 66% of national support in the polls.  It is plain to see that difficult political times loom ahead for the Conservatives.