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BSI policy work update

It’s been a time of upheaval for British politics. Our Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Matthew Gibbard, reviews the current political situation and the last few months of policy work, including how the BSI established a new engagement plan for the new Parliament.


Following the December 2019 general election and its delivery of a decisive result that gave the Conservative Party an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, this should be the last Immunology News article for a while that begins by recounting all the change and upheaval in Westminster since the last issue. While Parliament was dissolved, the BSI continued its policy and public affairs work behind the scenes preparing for the likely outcome, establishing a new engagement plan for the new Parliament, and continuing to work with our contacts in the civil service. 

Post-election summary

Because of the general election, the Government was unable to make major policy announcements due to purdah – the governing party is unable to use the machinery of government and taxpayers’ money to its electoral and political advantage and to maintain the neutrality of the civil service. This meant that several important documents that we were expecting, including the new Vaccine Strategy, or the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)/ UK Research and Innovation roadmaps to achieving the target of a combined public-private spend of 2.4% GDP on UK R&D, were not published.

The Conservative Party included in its manifesto a commitment to publish the Vaccine Strategy within 30 days of being re-elected into Government. Immediately after the election, the BSI wrote to the Prime Minister reminding him of this commitment, and the need to make the future funding framework clear. We will watch progress on these issues closely.

Other post-election work for the BSI included writing to all 140 MPs who entered Parliament for the first time and the 15 MPs who returned to Parliament following an electorate-imposed break, to inform them of the impending crisis in vaccination uptake, the circumstances surrounding this, and to offer a meeting. We also urged them to contact the Health Secretary to ask him to publish the Vaccine Strategy as soon as possible.

MPs have a bigger voice than us as a single organisation and it is important that the Health Secretary is reminded that vaccination is an issue that is important to his colleagues in Parliament. The BSI also met with the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Health Ministerial Team, Steve Double MP, in January to advocate for a comprehensive vaccine strategy that tackles the real causes of undervaccination in England.

‘Getting Brexit done’

By the time this article is published, the UK will have left the European Union on 31 January. I feel fairly confident in writing that sentence, given that the Prime Minister now has a large working majority and a popular mandate, and we have seen the electoral defeat of all the Tory MPs who defected or lost the whip over Brexit. This will mean a much smoother and faster process than we have grown used to with two years of minority government. Any opposition in the Remain-heavy House of Lords will be token; the Salisbury Doctrine is the constitutional convention by which the House of Lords does not oppose the second or third reading of any Government legislation that the governing party promised in its election manifesto, and the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 severely limit the ability of the Lords to delay or block legislation in any case.

MPs have a bigger voice than us as a single organisation and it is important that the Health Secretary is reminded that vaccination is an issue that is important to his colleagues in Parliament.

After the UK leaves the European Union, it will enter a transition period until December 2020 during which the Government can negotiate a future relationship with Brussels, while also entering talks with countries around the globe. The Government plans to legislate the December 2020 date into law but can obviously change that at will (see above on large majority). On 31 January, 20 continuity deals covering 50 countries will have come into force; these represent approximately three-quarters of the EU’s current trade agreements and cover 8% of UK trade. ‘Mutual recognition agreements’ have been signed with the USA, Australia, and New Zealand; the Antipodean agreements replicate all relevant aspects of the current EU agreements.

The discussions surrounding the future relationship with the EU will range far more broadly than just trade, and the agenda will include myriad other items including access to Horizon Europe (the Government’s ambition is to continue the close collaboration currently enjoyed, as stated in the Conservative manifesto).

‘Getting Brexit done’ has allowed the Prime Minister to use his own personal mandate to decide the Cabinet that he wants. The biggest, and most unexpected, change was the departure of Chancellor Sajid Javid, who leaves 11 Downing Street with the undesirable distinction of being the first Chancellor in modern history not to deliver a Budget. Saj is replaced by his former deputy, Rishi Sunak, who has accepted the Prime Minister’s demands for a joint Number 10–Treasury team of advisers, which is meant to stop the briefings and counterbriefings to the press and ensure both teams are on the same page.

Labour leadership race

The other big change is the departure of the Science and Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, and, what appears to be the first split of the science and universities ministerial roles since the pre-Cameron era, when both briefs were based in the same department (currently science is the responsibility of BEIS and universities are the responsibility of the Department for Education). The downgrading of the science post from the level of Minister of State with Cabinet attendance privileges to a junior ministerial Parliamentary Under Secretary of State role could mean that the science sector loses some influence – alternatively it could mean that Dominic Cummings, the PM’s senior adviser, sees himself as a voice for science at the centre of government and someone else would be superfluous. Time will tell. Labour leadership race While the Conservatives are getting to grips with the freedom to govern, the Labour Party are licking their wounds and engaging in some party introspection. Candidates for the Labour leadership are currently laying out their stalls to the membership.

The two favourites at the moment are Sir Keir Starmer QC MP (Lab, Holborn and St Pancras) and Rebecca Long Bailey MP (Lab, Salford and Eccles). Sir Keir, a barrister by trade and former Director of Public Prosecutions, is a confident parliamentary performer and has served as Shadow Brexit Secretary without ever fully signing up to the Corbyn agenda. He has suggested that the time for a second referendum has ended and that Labour must focus on ensuring a relationship with Europe in the coming years that’s ‘going to work for jobs and the economy’, while partly blaming Labour’s worst defeat since 1935 on an ‘overloaded’ manifesto.

For those who think the next Labour Leader should be a woman and from the North, Sir Keir falls somewhat short; instead Manchester born and bred, Rebecca Long Bailey, might be more to their taste. Long Bailey who has shared a London flat with Ashton-under-Lyne MP Angela Rayner since being elected in 2015 has agreed with her flatmate that Long Bailey should stand for Labour Leader while Rayner stands for the Deputy Leadership. This has led to, not completely unfair, claims that not only is Long Bailey not the best leadership candidate in the Labour Party, but that she’s not even the best candidate in her own flat. First elected in 2015 and having been lifted from the backbenches to Shadow Secretary of State in less than two years, it is widely known that she is John McDonnel’s protégée and for this reason many see her as ‘Continuity Corbyn’ and the Labour Left are pushing hard, in part by fixing the rules for the contest. The Labour leadership result will be declared on 4 April while much of the country are watching the Grand National.

Matthew Gibbard
BSI Policy & Public Affairs Manager
m.gibbard@immunology.org