This week the Prime Minister finds himself risking all politically in an attempt to replace the somewhat divisive Northern Ireland protocol - with a new agreement - the Windsor framework. That he’s had to do so at all is a product of one of those imperfect, but perhaps inevitable, post Brexit outcomes.
Brexit demonstrated how when promised a seemingly simple alternative, some of us felt not only emboldened by the prospect of change but enthused by a sense of hope. For many others of course hope was the very last thing Brexit brought.
Above all Brexit taught us just how seismic an act the British people will embrace when they feel detached, disenfranchised, and misled by their politicians.
But what if Brexit was just the start? What if we are already headed inexorably toward the UK’s next seismic political shock? I pose those questions because the findings of the annual Edelman UK Trust Barometer, released today, would seem to indicate the answers are ‘yes it was’, and ‘yes we are’.
After all the last twelve months have been defined by scandal, infighting, resignation, leadership contests, and experimental policy making. We’ve had three Prime Ministers, a war in Ukraine, an energy crisis, an economic crash, a market reset and an unprecedented assault on our cost of living. It isn’t hard to see why the data tells us that a path to the next big political shock may already have been laid.
The results should make sobering reading for Britain’s main political parties. This is a path paved with economic despair, deep distrust of government, downright disdain for politicians, and a desperate yearning for the fresh ideas and new thinking that the British people accuse their leaders of failing to bring forward.
There has been a sixteen-point jump in the proportion of the public who think their standard of living will get worse in the next year. This pervasive feeling of economic negativity is coupled with people turning to desperate practical measures for themselves and their families. Shockingly, one in five say that they have used, plan to use, or are considering using a foodbank, jumping to one in three for those with lower incomes.
When you layer this sense of hardship on to a chaotic last year in British politics, it’s not hard to see how trust in the institution of government is in the doldrums. From an already low base, we found that trust in government ‘to do the right thing’ fell to just 27%. Vast majorities of the British public think that politicians are making things in the UK worse and that how they act is making society more divided. Troublingly, they also now think politicians are more likely to lie to and mislead them.
All this means that government as an institution and politicians as a profession find themselves in a difficult place, and that’s before they examine the terrain that they need to navigate to get us out of this mess.
Three-quarters of Brits may well say that the UK is on the ‘wrong track’, but on many critical questions they are split down the middle on what to do about it. That presents politicians with a minefield across public opinion. We are it seems evenly divided on not just whether we are willing to accept further hardship while current problems are being addressed, but also on whether higher taxes are necessary to help us to solve those economic woes.
Where there is some unanimity is on the clamour for meaningful change and new answers. Nearly three in four people believe dealing with the country’s problems requires new thinking, new ideas and new approaches, compared to fewer than one in five who are wedded to longstanding orthodoxy.
And while our findings largely mirror national polling leads currently enjoyed by Labour over the Conservatives, we also found a significant sense of antipathy toward both main parties that may yet prove challenging not just for Rishi Sunak, but for Keir Starmer too.
Our survey only gives a fleeting glance of what might lie at the end of this path when it reveals that a significant majority of people are now demanding a new vision for the country and even a “completely new kind of political party”. And yet we know from the dismal failure of Change UK that new centre ground political parties rarely fare well in the British system. The problem it seems, is that demand is not being met by supply among our political establishment.
But that doesn’t mean that a political movement, even one with radical tendencies, cannot fill the void that Britons now see when they look for leadership. Brexit, embraced as it was by 52% of us, happened when you could count the number of UKIP MPs on one hand.
Fast forward nearly seven years and it is clear people are demanding a new vision, not just new MPs – and they are doing so across every age group, social class, and region of the UK.
As Europe has shown, it’s not impossible for mainstream parties to be side-lined, rupture or collapse under the weight of a political movement inside or outside of the legislature. They can be forced to act whilst under threat from populist or extreme opponents, they can even elect populist or extreme leaders themselves.
We find ourselves in a situation in which the disdain and mistrust people feel of their politicians today, combined with the economic fatalism to which they have succumbed, are a cocktail as toxic, and in some cases worse, than in 2016.
The difference about today’s malaise is that it is so acutely amplified by economic challenges that seem far more intractable than they did a few years ago.
If there is a silver lining for our political leaders from our data then it is this: the answer to the whole conundrum lies not just in navigating a way out of the difficult waters, but doing so on the back of a new, compelling, and tangible vision that plays to the country’s strengths, restores trust, fuels optimism, and provides measurable outcomes rather than false hopes.
Our leaders will need the conviction, confidence, and charisma to engage the public in the inherent trade-offs at the heart of decision making, to level with them about the time it takes to deliver impactful and enduring change, and to inspire and galvanise society in its broadest sense to work together to realise future opportunities. What politicians cannot continue to do is promise the earth for short term gain.
Low trust, an ideas void, and economic hardship means we may well be at an inflection point. If high demand for reframing and fresh thinking remains unmet among our political establishment, then we shouldn’t be surprised if people look elsewhere for answers, with all the damaging consequences that flow from that.
Ed Williams is CEO and President of Edelman EMEA