Four politicians to keep an eye on this year and why it matters
If there is one thing we can be certain about, it is that nothing is certain in British politics. Not anymore. Not after 2016 and especially not after what we saw in 2017.
This time last year Labour MPs were quitting Parliament, demoralised and sure that the party was heading for electoral oblivion. Theresa May, Prime Minister of a majority Conservative government, appeared to be the master of all she surveyed. Parliamentarians voted 498 to 114 to trigger Article 50; Brexit really would mean Brexit after all.
You only have to look at the faces of our politicians today to see just how much has changed in 12 months.
Talk of a second referendum to reverse Brexit is no longer a Westminster taboo or confined to the Lib Dem conference hall, but the explicit mission of dozens of MPs and commentators. A revitalised Jeremy Corbyn now has a genuine shot at becoming Prime Minister - some even chant his name. And who knows who will be the next Cabinet minister to be embroiled in an embarrassing scandal.
The rough and tumble of politics might seem like idle gossip - indeed for many in Westminster that’s all it is. But for those of us who do care about policy, these things matter. One resignation or one badly handled event is often all it takes for the priorities of Government to turn on it’s head.
So as the first week of 2018 draws to a close, here are four politicians who are worth keeping an eye on this year.
1. Gavin Williamson
The ambitious 41 year old has only been an MP for eight years, but has already gone from being David Cameron’s eyes and ears in Parliament to now running the Ministry of Defence. Williamson no doubt professes loyalty to the Prime Minister and is regarded as part of her inner circle, but his ambition won’t stop at the MoD and 2018 could be the year that he makes his next move towards the great offices of state, or maybe even the top job itself.
As the former Chief Whip until just a few months ago, Williamson knows all the gory details in Westminster and is said to retain a strong influence over many Conservative backbenchers. He is definitely one to watch. After all, who better to start a rebellion than the one who has spent the last four years putting them down?
2. Arlene Foster
If Gavin Williamson might be able to bring the Government down with a single move, there is someone else in British politics who definitely can.
Arlene Foster is the current leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which last year signed an agreement with Theresa May (largely through the efforts of Gavin Williamson) to effectively keep her party in power by supporting the Budget and any votes of no confidence that may arise. But unlike Nick Clegg and David Cameron, this is not a coalition, meaning that either party could technically decide to terminate the agreement at any time. At the very least it means that on key pieces of legislation, May’s Conservatives cannot guarantee that they will have the votes for it to pass, leading to government paralysis.
There are already signs that this is happening. Changes to constituency boundaries for example, a longstanding ambition of the Conservative Party, are currently opposed by the DUP. And who could forget that day when the EU was expecting to agree that "sufficient progress" had been made in the Brexit negotiations, only to be told that Arlene Foster had called the Prime Minister to tell her that the terms were unacceptable and the deal was off.
As the fragile agreement with the DUP moves into 2018 and as the British Government prepares to make compromises in the Brexit negotiations, the relationship is likely to get more strained rather than less. And if they do, then it will be Foster who will call the shots.
3. Leo Varadkar
From one Irish politician to another. In one of the many unexpected changes to occur last year, Leo Varadkar succeeded Enda Kenny as Ireland’s Taoiseach. In any “normal” year, a change of Irish leader wouldn’t seem that consequential to the fortunes of the British Government. But with the Brexit negotiations well underway and with the future of the UK-Irish border seen as the major hurdle in the way of Britain securing a positive outcome, the opinions and utterances of the Irish government are crucial to the success of Brexit. An Irish veto at the last minute and Britain is heading for the exit door with no deal.
4. Emmanuel Macron
With a British Government consumed with the task of leaving the EU, a German government still yet to be constructed and Donald Trump being, well, Donald Trump, the West lacks leadership.
Step forward French President Emmanuel Macron. It might not have seemed likely 12 months ago, but the 40 year old Macron has seized on the inertia and isolationism of others - not to mention the vast reserves of political capital available at home - and sought to rediscover France as a nation prepared to lead and prepared to be bold.
Witness his recent assembling of businesses and world leaders at the One Planet summit in Paris, after cheekily pledging to "Make Our Planet Great Again". Or his visits to far flung corners of the globe that no French President had until then ever visited, like the former British colony of Ghana. Or his ambitious proposals to reform the Eurozone, which await sign off from a weakened Angela Merkel. Some would even go as far as arguing that the extent to which Britain is able to negotiate a favourable Brexit settlement, or even whether Britain will leave at all, may in fact lie in Macron's hands.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that three of the four politicians mentioned are not Members of the UK Parliament. Because if anything is certain, it is that in 2018 British government policy will rely on building and maintaining alliances – more so than ever before.