Donald Rumsfeld, who died in June, will always be remembered for his statement about ‘known unknowns’ with reference to Iraq. The term was apparently already in use at NASA for risks that one is aware of, which is where Rumsfeld came across it.
So casting our minds to the approaching next General Election what might the ‘known unknowns’ be here in UK for the 2023/24 campaign?
- The NHS. Obviously a perennial election regular, but this time it could be absolutely crucial. Given the dire state of the NHS even before covid hit, with years of underfunding and cack-handed reorganizations by the likes of Lansley, things can surely only be worse in coming years. Javid has an absolute monster of a job stopping eye-watering patient waiting lists becoming a decisive issue at the next election. When everyone knows someone who is on a waiting list that is measured in years not months, there will be trouble. And that’s before we start on the social care system, which, frankly, is an absolute disgrace for a mature and well-off country. All this plays to one of Starmer’s party’s key strengths.
- Cummings launches a new right-wing party. Who knows what he gets up to in his home office when he’s not writing 5000 word articles on data science? But one possibility is that he is so riven with animosity towards Johnson that he will try and engineer the launch of some kind of political vehicle to deprive the PM of a working majority at the next GE. Unsafe to write this one off as the Sage of Barnard Castle is a proven campaign winner and seemingly the master of the three word slogan. ‘See Johnson Off’?
- Johnson writes two essays. In one, he wins a second term and manages to do enough time at the coalface to beat the longevity of the former party leader he still allegedly calls ‘Cameron Minor’. He needs to get to July 2025. In the other, he walks away because he is skint, hates the job which he finds mainly tedious, and feels desperate to be back making people laugh on Have I Got News. Which essay gets selected? Who knows. He has two years to decide.
- On another Johnson front: the PM, known to the wider public simply as ‘Boris’, remains remarkably popular at least with enough of the electorate to be in with a very good shout of winning again. Loathed by hard Remainers, university town liberals, commuters in Chesham and almost anyone who regularly goes to dinner parties, out in the wider world he is seen as genuinely having his heart in the right place and having instincts for the ‘everyman’. In some senses, he is a rather Chestertonian character: funny, chaotic, bumbling, scruffy, has trouble with umbrellas and yet sympathetic and with an uncanny nose for what is passing as fair comment at the saloon bar of the Olde Dog and Duck. For many people, ‘he means well’ and ‘he can’t do right for doing wrong’ are prime summing ups.
- 2023/4 turns into the Covid Election. Despite heroic efforts by vaccination scientists the blasted plague still remains one step ahead even in 2023 as we try to keep up with variants and declining immunity with a seemingly endless round of lock/unlock and new vaccine boosters every few months. If daily and school life is in the mess it is this summer in 2023 then probably Johnson will stay well away from an early poll. If he goes for it arguing Starmer would not do better, could he have massively misjudged the public mood for someone else to have a go?
- Inflation: no one under the age of about fifty has any idea what high inflation, stagflation and soaring interest rates feel like. A whole generation has grown up in the era of ‘Nice’ and those that have been lucky enough to get on the property ladder have probably never heard of having to hand the keys back because interest rises have made the payments impossible. Even those pensioners who remember the 70s probably aren’t properly psychology ready for the assault on fixed incomes from high inflation. Financial commentators aren’t sure what will happen, but with the post-covid hangover, central bank money printing mania and the Biden boom it’s quite possible that a dose of high inflation could blow Johnson’s re-election chances.
There are six ‘known unknowns’ to start with. I’m sure PBers can think of more or challenge these suggestions. I offer them more as the start of a debate than a Professor Ferguson-style model prediction. For what it’s worth I think Starmer and Labour are going to put up a tougher fight than appears the case at the moment. It will be close.
And of course, there’s always those pesky unknown unknowns…