A look ahead at the key events leading the news agenda next week, from the team at Foresight News. Delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Leading the week
A heavyweight trilateral takes place in San Diego on Monday (March 13) as US President Joe Biden hosts discussions with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese on the AUKUS defence/military agreement. The leaders are expected to announce the next steps in providing nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as the allies seek to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, with an enhanced role for Britain in the vessels’ construction set to provide a welcome boost to the UK leader on the global stage. Sunak is also expected to use the trip to release the long-awaited update to the Integrated Review, which has been touted as a major refresh of the Boris Johnson-era strategy for the UK’s defence and international policy. The update could also feature a pre-Budget boost to defence spending, which would please Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and go some way to assuaging the fears of MPs on the Defence Select Committee that the UK’s commitments to NATO could be affected by a fall in spending.
While Sunak is splashing the cash in California, Jeremy Hunt will be putting the final touches on the Spring Budget he’s set to announce on Wednesday (March 15). The chancellor’s last fiscal statement was followed by warnings that the UK faced the biggest hit to living standards for a generation, and while conditions have improved since last November with inflation slightly down and a recession narrowly avoided, the minimum ask will be to reassure households (and markets) that things are not set to get worse in the immediate future. The apocalyptic reactions to the last two fiscal events mean Hunt has a relatively low bar to clear, though the man brought in by Liz Truss to steady the ship is unlikely to produce many surprises this time around.
Despite public borrowing reaching record levels in December, the OBR is expected to reduce its borrowing forecast for this year in the Economic and Fiscal Outlook which will accompany the Chancellor’s statement on Wednesday. This is unlikely to translate into any spending giveaways, though an extension to the energy support guarantee is likely to have been priced in by the Treasury regardless and there may even be cash allocated to public sector pay as the government attempts to bring an end to the months of strike action that have contributed to the UK’s recent economic woes. While Hunt will almost certainly ignore calls to cancel the planned rise in corporation tax, despite attempts among some Conservative backbenchers to revive Truss-era tax plans, there are likely to be some tax breaks for business announced as ministers seek to fulfil another of the prime minister’s five priorities.
As if defence plans and a budget weren’t enough, this week’s big story rumbles on as MPs are due to vote on the Illegal Migration Bill for the first time on Monday (March 13). Sunak’s new legislation would give the government the power to swiftly deport anyone crossing the Channel by small boat and would also ban them for life from entering the UK. The bill also imposes a legal duty on the Home Secretary to remove anyone entering the country via small boat to a safe country, such as Rwanda, without having to hear their asylum claim, provisions all designed to act as a deterrent to the rising number of people crossing the channel.
But the bill will face scrutiny from parliament, where Labour is whipping MPs to vote against it and Conservatives are lining up potential rebellions from both the right and left wings of the party over a potential clash with the UK’s European Convention on Human Rights obligations – not to mention expected pushback once it reaches the Lords. The UN Refugee Agency has said the bill effectively ‘extinguish[es] the right to seek refugee protection’ in the UK, and lawyers claim it amounts to a clear breach of international law and human rights, something the prime minister seems to have anticipated. In a Downing Street press conference, he said that he’s ‘up for the fight’ if the bill is challenged in the courts, but that the Government believes it is lawful.
In Beijing, the first session of China’s latest National People’s Congress wraps up on Monday (March 13). Following his re-election today to an unprecedented third term as president, Xi Jinping is scheduled to deliver a speech during Monday’s plenary, which will be followed by a press conference from the country’s new premier, widely expected to be Li Qiang though a formal announcement is not due until tomorrow (March 11). Xi’s address is likely to be one to watch, if the tone of recent comments are anything to go by. On Monday, new Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang gave a fiery press conference on the margins of the NPC, in which he ominously warned of ‘catastrophic consequences’ if the US does not change its stance towards China. That same day, state media reported that Xi used a closed-door meeting to accuse the US and Western countries of having ‘implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression’ against Beijing.
Sticking with Asia, South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol, who will pay a state visit to Washington next month, visits Japan on Thursday and Friday (March 16-17) and holds talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. It is the first visit by a South Korean leader to Japan in 12 years amid a long-running dispute over forced labour during Tokyo’s colonial rule, which has hindered closer cooperation on issues of mutual concern such as China and North Korea.
Back in the US, politicians from across the island of Ireland are expected to travel to Washington, DC for the traditional White House-hosted St Patrick’s Day celebrations around Friday (March 17). The celebrations typically involve leaders from Dublin and Belfast and are likely to be particularly closely watched this year for any signs that Joe Biden’s planned visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is definitely going ahead. The recent announcement of an agreement on post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, which Biden will have had the chance to discuss with Rishi Sunak earlier in the week, is viewed as removing a potential obstacle to the trip. The US administration is also likely to use the opportunity to press representatives of the DUP and Sinn Fein on efforts to restore the Executive at Stormont.