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The Commons returns today and, for Boris Johnson and others, the political year proper begins. So here are twelve – if not quite new year resolutions or even priorities – hurdles he must clear.

  • Geidt. The Downing Street redecoration controversy probably offends fewer voters than Downing Street parties one.  But it is closer to the Prime Minister.  His reputation will be done further damage by the details of Christopher Geidt’s report.  But he is set to be cleared by it of breaking the Ministerial Code, which should be enough to satisfy restive Conservative backbenchers.  So in that sense he is set to clear the first obstacle.
  • Gray. It is impossible to imagine the senior civil servant’s investigation into “Number Ten staff gatherings” clearing all concerned.  As the saying has it, “junior heads will roll”.  Will senior ones?  Since most of those concerned were career civil servants, the Prime Minister appears to be relatively insulated.  And Gray will be aware of the consequences of a report that could set in motion the defenestration of a Prime Minister. But one can’t be sure.
  • Omicron. The menacing aspect of the variant for Johnson is its consequences for the NHS. It is less severe than Delta and fewer ICU beds are currently occupied.  The number of admissions at A & E departments alone seem insufficient to break down the system’s normal operability.  The question is what the combination of admissions and staff absences may do to the health service in what is traditionally a difficult month for it.
  • NHS resilience.  If Johnson clears the Omicron hurdle, he faces the next healthcare one: a media-declared “NHS crisis” later this month, as the variant, Delta, flu, staff shortages, blocked beds and the usual January upturn in admissions take their toll.  Health services in other European countries are also taking the strain.  But unless the system runs with more capacity, which requires proper social care reform, it will be vulnerable to shocks.
  • Cost of living. A long period of relatively low electricity bills may be coming to an end: certainly, there are inflationary pressures as the world economy opens up – and consumers face big bill rises. To cut a long story short, the Prime Minister has no alternative, if he wants to cushion the blow for poorer losers, but to subsidise them.  Cutting VAT on fuel would help larger families with bigger bills.
  • Energy strategy. Cost of living pressures also raise the matter of green energy levies.  A topical way of looking at Net Zero and energy policy itself is through the lens of energy security.  Rebalancing our sources of supply to include more domestically-produced oil and gas might not keep price rises low if are international shortages of both – and change would take time.  But it would help to bolster security of supply.
  • Small boats. The number of arrivals seeking asylum by boat may be smaller than from other means of arrival.  Nonetheless, it has gripped the public imagination – and there is no obvious upper limit.  Natalie Elphicke’s Dover and Deal constituents are in the front line, and her piece on this site today about the issue is worth reading.  No solution to gain control will be complete without derogations from the ECHR.
  • Levelling up. The publication of Michael Gove’s White Paper has been pushed back by Omicron.  When it comes, the Levelling Up Secretary must deliver on two big fronts if it is to make a difference.  The first is short-term impact (he is pushing the Treasury on business rate reform for retailers).  The second is longer-term change – impossible without the devolution of more power to more mayors.
  • Tax and spend. The trajectory of economic policy is unsustainable: it risks becoming a self-generating cycle spiral of higher spending funded by higher taxes.  The Bank Rate rose recently – ao upward pressure on rates rules out tax cuts without lower spending.  Rishi Sunak has little option but to seek the former if he is to deliver the latter. To compound his problems, he must do so at the wrong moment in the political cycle.
  • Northern Ireland.  Scottish separatism will loom larger as the next election approaches. Trouble in Northern Ireland, with implications for our relations with the EU, looms this spring.  If the Assembly elections produce a Sinn Fein First Minister, the province’s institutions may collapse.  Before then, there will be pressure on Liz Truss, complicated by her leadership ambitions, to move Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
  • Downing Street.  The Prime Minister could shuffle his team: change the Chief Whip, say. Or the Leader of the House.  Or his Chief of Staff.  A drastic shakeup worked early for him as Mayor of London.  But there seems to be no equivalent Simon Milton figure available.  Many of Johnson’s management problems are self-created in any event.  And the more relaunches a Government has, the less impact each delivers.
  • After Brexit. Lists of hurdles to be cleared take governments only so far.  They must shape what’s before them, like a landscape architect, rather than accept what’s there – at least if they’re to make an impact. Where is the regulatory overhaul that George Freeman, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers have presaged?  The families and childcare policy?  A Cummings-style strategic plan to turn research success into business success?