With 2014 marking the last full year before the next General Election, as well as the Scottish independence referendum and local and European elections, it might be fair to say our politicians are looking ahead with some trepidation at the year ahead. But what New Year resolutions might David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have made and do they have any hopes of keeping them?
If there's one thing the three main party leaders can agree on this year, it's that they would like to see the UK stay together. With a little over nine months until Scottish voters get to decide on their independence, the polls look favourable for the pro-Union campaign. But anything could happen between now and next September and Alex Salmond and the SNP will be hoping that events such as this summer's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will give voters a 'feel-good' bounce. Every policy decision made between now and the vote will be scrutinised to see just how it would impact on Scotland, if it chooses to remain part of the UK.
But as usual, the parties will disagree on most issues and the economy will continue to dominate. Some good economic news at the end of 2013 has put David Cameron in good spirits, but the Chancellor remains adamant that further austerity will be needed, including £12bn of further reductions in the welfare budget after the next election. Osborne intends to outline his plans to Parliament as part of a 'Charter of Budget Responsibility', a trap for Labour who will be pushed to commit to similar levels of austerity measures. But Ed Balls will continue to try and define the economic argument in terms of the 'cost of living crisis', a tactic successfully deployed by Labour since the summer.
Both parties will probably hope that the NHS stays off the front page in 2014 but that may also be unlikely. The Care Bill and the introduction of changes to regulation post-Francis and Mid Staffs will be difficult for both Jeremy Hunt and Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham. The Government may wish to continue to criticise Labour's NHS record, but after four years in power, that line may start to wear thin, especially if problems in A&E services continue to rumble on. If financial pressures in the NHS also develop over 2014, Jeremy Hunt may find himself in an increasingly difficult position.
As the year progresses, the 2015 General Election will start to come sharply into focus. It's almost certain that all three parties will reshuffle their front benches to prepare their top teams for the election campaign. For Nick Clegg, a reshuffle offers the chance to balance the competing ideologies within the Lib Dems and to bring more women into the upper echelons of his party. Jo Swinson is likely to find herself promoted when she returns from maternity leave in a few months time. Meanwhile, Cameron and Miliband will continue the pattern they established in 2013 and promote rising stars into more prominent roles. Several junior Conservative MPs found themselves at Minister of State level after the last reshuffle and many of them may have their eye on the Cabinet before 2015. Miliband will continue to bestow his patronage on members of his talented 2010 intake of MPs.
Whether politics will follow the carefully laid plans of the party leaders is doubtful. What is certain is that 2014 will be a pivotal year for politics, setting the stage for the next election and offering a final chance to change policy before electioneering takes precedence. Who will capitalise on these last opportunities remains to be seen. Insight Public Affairs' Political Preview sets out some of these challenges and looks ahead at the major decisions politicians will be making in 2014. You can find it on our website here.
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