What a year it has been. From the increasingly difficult Brexit process, to May’s ill-timed General Election, and every time Trump tweets, it’s certainly been unpredictable and never normal. Over the next ten days, Four Public Affairs will be counting down our top political moments of 2017, as nominated by our team - let us know if you agree:
10. Jeremy Corbyn’s high five skills (or lack thereof)
We all remember Labour’s general election campaign, characterised by Jeremy Corbyn’s dad dance moves, football skills and affinity with Grime music. But the awkward moment he accidentally slapped Emily Thornberry’s chest while attempting a high-five on election night definitely sticks in the memory of Four PA’s Rebecca Godfrey as the funniest of the campaign.
The Telegraph called it the ‘most awkward high five of all time’, while all due credit needs to be given to both Emily Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn for their nonchalant recovery. The papers have since tracked the highs and lows of his high-five abilities, and we continue to enjoy every moment of it.
9. That time the Conservatives seemed unstoppable
The results of this year’s UK local elections had us thinking Theresa May and the Conservatives would be now be sitting securely through the trials and tribulations of Brexit with a comfortable majority, but can you blame us?
In his nomination, Four PA’s Joe Cormack said “the local elections completely wrong footed everyone, barely a month ahead of the General Election. Conservative successes in the mayoral elections in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, alongside Labour’s huge losses and relegation to overall third place in Scotland, were huge surprises.”
Steve Rotheram in Liverpool and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester were red islands in a rising blue tide, triumphing in their mayoral races to join Sadiq Khan in London as part of the powerful new group of ‘Metro Mayors’. But still, with the staggering Conservative gains at Labour’s expense, a plunge in the UKIP vote share and a fizzer of a Lib Dem comeback, Theresa May’s team seemed unstoppable.
The question posed by Politico at the time was “how blue can Britain go?” Flash forward to the end of 2017 and we’re now asking the opposite question.
8. French and Austrian elections usher in a new guard
Alongside the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria also went to the polls this year, contributing to that whirling dervish feeling we all have about 2017. The highlight was definitely the victory of centrist French leader Emmanuel Macron, who was one of the first to buck the trend towards the right, defeating Front National candidate Marine Le Pen with an absolute majority in May.
New Statesman’s Pauline Bock has called the rise of Macron and En Marche!, the political party he formed for his presidential run “the new French revolution, shattering the accepted thinking that 39 is too young to be president; that a person cannot be “neither left nor right”… and that no one can run for the presidency without the support of a pre-existing party.” We tend to agree, EU politics has certainly become never normal.
This disruption of the status quo has also paved the way for 31 year old leader of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) Sebastian Kurz to become Chancellor of Austria in a snap election in October, while it’s been a decidedly tough year for incumbent German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been struggling to form a coalition since September while trying to keep EU nations united.
Four PA’s Ben Wheatley summed up the contradictions of the year in his nomination, telling us that while Macron winning represented the hope of European integration; on the other side Merkel’s ongoing failure to secure a coalition likely spells the beginning of the end for her. You can read more thoughts from Ben on this, and the implications on the life science industry here.
7. The #metoo movement transforms the conversation
The zeitgeist moment of the year has undoubtedly been the #metoo movement, originally coined by social activist Tarana Burke and popularised by Alyssa Milano in October. It has since served as a transformational platform for millions of people to come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. Indeed, what may have a come as a surprise to most of us was simply the staggering number of people affected.
The campaign, which has most notably brought to light the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey among others, did not spare Westminster either. With allegations and a redacted spreadsheet doing the rounds, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was forced to resign, while International Trade Minister Mark Garnier and First Secretary of State Damian Green remain under a cloud. Alongside accusations of a ‘witch-hunt’ from some quarters, it has caused ongoing political headaches for both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
In his nomination, Four PA’s John Munro said the campaign could prove transformative for UK politics, empowering women MPs and people who work in Parliament to assert their power and demand to be heard.
In recognition of this social transformation, Time’s Person of the Year in 2017 is not just one person, but many. Dedicated to ‘The Silence Breakers’, the voices that launched a movement, its cover features Ashley Judd, Taylor Swift, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, organiser of the We Said Enough campaign Adama Iwu, and Isabel Pascual (pseudonym) a strawberry picker and immigrant from Mexico.
Many might have wondered about the presence of a solitary elbow of an unidentified woman also on the cover. Interesting fact of the day - it is deliberately placed, and meant to be an act of solidarity to represent all of those who are not yet able to come forward and reveal their identities.
6. The DUP become the power brokers of Westminster
Who really holds the power in Westminster? Well, thanks to Theresa May’s aborted attempt to strike a deal with Brussels on the issue of the Irish border; we now know for certain the answer is Arlene Foster and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The pro-Brexit DUP was always guaranteed to hold a disproportionate amount of power thanks to their 10 seat contribution to securing a majority for the Conservatives. The confidence and supply arrangement struck in exchange for £1 billion of new Treasury investment in Northern Ireland ensured that the DUP would back May on the Queens Speech, the Budget, Brexit and national security.
But in the case of the scuttled first attempt at a deal guaranteeing no hard land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it exposed the real weakness in Theresa May’s agenda. The DUP won’t hesitate to leverage their bargaining power when it comes down to the detail.
While Theresa May was finally able to negotiate an agreement thanks to a last minute day of diplomacy, there is still that lingering feeling that the relationship has been built with sand, not steel. The simple wording that broke the deadlock? The Government will ensure that ‘no new regulatory barriers’ are developed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK unless otherwise agreed.
Throughout, we’ve been fascinated by the idioms wheeled out by news outlets to try and explain the whole debacle – apparently the Conservatives are being ‘held to ransom’, Theresa May is ‘a hostage to fortune’ and according to Naushabah Khan from Four PA, the DUP is ‘flexing its muscles’.
The question now is, what kind of Brexit is Britain going to get - the one envisioned by the nearly 52% of voters during the referendum, or one catering to the 1% of people who voted for the DUP at the General Election.
5. Anthony Scaramucci departs the White House in a blaze of glory
It was only 10 days, but for us political geeks it was 10 glorious days of drama, showmanship and expletive-ridden rants. Anthony Scaramucci, also known as ‘The Mooch’, was appointed by Donald Trump as White House Communications Director on the 21st of July, resulting in the resignations of embattled Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and spokesman Sean Spicer.
In a style characterised by his effusive love for the President and a no holds barred approach to PR, his time in the job ended up being the shortest in history, just beating the previous record of 11 days held by Reagan administration staffer Jack Koehler, and his association with the Hitler Youth.
Looking back on it all is actually baffling to those of us who have worked in politics. For example, his announcement that he would be deleting old tweets supporting Hillary Clinton for the sake of ‘full transparency’; or when he told the press he would be firing assistant press secretary Michael C. Short for leaking information, before actually speaking to him.
In the midst of his busy schedule, he also found time to provide Sarah Huckabee Sanders with unsolicited advice about her appearance; and called in to the CNN to reiterate accusations that Reince Priebus was leaking information, saying "the fish stinks from the head down”.
But the high point was definitely that infamous phone call to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker where he spoke mostly in the third person, saying "the swamp will not defeat him”, and made those well-known expletive comments about Steve Bannon. On the 31st of July, new Chief of Staff General John F. Kelly used his first day in the job to promptly fire Anthony Scaramucci with military precision.
While those 10 days in July are now fading into obscurity, in what is considered to be an increasingly surprising and turbulent Trump presidency, Scaramucci will certainly be remembered for his pure entertainment value, or perhaps as a reminder of a time when we thought it couldn’t get any worse.
4. Jeremy Corbyn’s rock star treatment at Glastonbury
Following on from Labour’s strong showing at this year’s General Election, attributed in part to a boost in the youth vote, it might not actually surprise anyone that the man with a penchant for wearing a paperboy hat and sweater has now become a style icon with almost rock star status. While Labour may not have won the election in early June, someone clearly forgot to tell the festival goers of Glastonbury, when just a few weeks later his speech as the opening act for US hip-hop group Run the Jewels, attracted crowds on the scale of the Rolling Stones in 2013.
Greeted by deafening chants, Corbyn branded t-shirts and signs saying ‘I heart Jeremy’, Glastonbury 2017 officially marked the point when it became cool to like politics. Four PA’s Rob Fuller was in the crowd when Corbyn took to the stage, and said “Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury was a definitive moment of the year. An ageing socialist, who has been in Parliament since 1983, on the Pyramid Stage as thousands of young people chanted ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ wasn't something even his most ardent supporters would have imagined after the Brexit vote exactly a year before.”
Perhaps hearing the news that ageing white men with beards were suddenly being considered cool by the younger generation, Corbyn wasn’t the only one from the Labour Party to jump on the Glastonbury bandwagon. Ed Balls was apparently swamped for selfies alongside his wife, Yvette Cooper MP, while Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson were also spotted enjoying the delights of Worthy Farm.
3. Theresa May’s conference speech becomes a sign of the times
It all started innocently enough. Theresa May’s speech at party conference in October was expected to be a much needed reset for the Conservatives following the ill-advised general election which saw their majority slashed to a DUP controlled minority. It was hoped her speech would provide a strong alternative to the Labour Party, just one week after Jeremy Corbyn appeared on stage in Brighton to the all too familiar chanting of his name, and declared Labour to be the new political mainstream.
Instead, Theresa May was cursed by that old adage, trouble comes in threes. It became apparent early on in her speech May was battling a persistent cough. We’ve all had a cold at some inconvenient point, and it was in fact admirable that she kept calm and carried on. However, we watched and collectively cringed when a prankster, comedian Simon Brodkin, was able to walk right up to the stage and hand the Prime Minister a mocked up P45 form, ostensibly on the direction of Boris Johnson.
Then it all started to fall apart, quite literally. The sign which read ‘building a country that works for everyone’ lost the letter F, shortly followed by the letter E. By the time conference goers were despondently filing out of the conference hall, the sign had lost a few more letters and become a metaphor for the previous hour. In the wise words of Four PA’s Jim Dickson, “it’s a reminder that just when you think nothing more can go wrong for Theresa May, it does.”
The real pity is that it overshadowed a speech which was actually quite good, conveying a frank apology over the disappointing election result, unveiling policy announcements aimed at easing energy prices for families and providing more council housing, and drawing that much-needed ideological comparison to the Corbyn alternative.
2. Invoking Article 50 makes Brexit a reality
It was the moment the handful of Remain protesters still stationed outside Downing Street hoped would never happen. For the rest of us, the handing over the Article 50 letter was just the first inevitable step in the slow march to Brexit, already decided that fateful night in June 2016. The letter was signed by Theresa May on the evening of the 28th of March, and by the next day Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Ambassador to the EU was hand-delivering it to European Commission president Donald Tusk in Brussels.
According to Four PA’s Peter Graham, invoking Article 50 has now made Brexit a certainty. Regardless of general elections, the future of the Prime Minister, or the outcome of negotiations, the UK will leave the EU. As Theresa May declared at the time “this is a historic moment from which there can be no turning back.” Donald Tusk on the other hand greeted the letter with a joke, saying “after nine months, the UK has delivered.”
So what still needs to happen before the UK is officially out of the EU? Those of us playing the very long game of Brexit bingo know that the handing over of the letter was just the point marking the start of two potentially painful years of negotiations to agree upon a deal. Now there is conciliation on a divorce bill, and all things going to plan, it means the UK will quit the EU by March 29 2019 at the latest. In the meantime instead of bingo, we’ve decided a Brexit advent calendar might be more appropriate, filled only with Cadburys of course.
1. Theresa May calls an early election, and promptly loses her majority
By now it has become tough to believe any polls, but Trump’s election and the results of the Brexit referendum should have already taught us to expect the unexpected. As we are so regularly reminded, the only poll that really counts is the one that takes place on election day.
When Theresa May called an early election for June, following a walking holiday in Wales with her husband Philip, it came as a surprise to even some of her closest advisers. The idea of a new election to secure a refreshed mandate and confidently negotiate with Brussels was solid in theory, but it backfired spectacularly. Amidst the predictions of a Conservative landslide along the lines of 2015 and the ‘unelectability’ of Corbyn, we watched as the wheels fell off the wagon courtesy of the Conservative manifesto, and a disastrous proposed cap on social care costs.
Right up to election day, the polls were still predicting a comfortable victory for the Conservatives. But when the exit poll painted a very different picture, the looks on George Osborne and Ed Balls’ faces reflected everyone’s shock, and in Osborne’s case his utter glee. Four PA’s Rob Fuller thinks that look should go in the dictionary as the definitive example of schadenfreude.
Despite taking 20 seats off their opponents, 33 Conservative MPs lost their contests, and May was forced to strike a confidence and supply deal with the DUP. The Conservatives had scored a giant own goal and the UK came within a hair’s breadth of having Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in power. The result of the 2017 General Election will surely be remembered as the defining moment in what has certainly been an interesting year in British politics.