Predictions for 2021

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

Yogi Berra

It is the season for pundits everywhere to make predictions about the coming year, most of which will turn out to be complete bobbins. I hereby present to you five suggestions for things I think are likely to happen in 2021. It will be interesting to revisit this post this time next year. Some of these are quite specific, others are less so, but it should be clear enough in each case how far off the mark I am.

(1) Julian Assange to be extradited to the USA

This is of course pretty basic realpolitik, and given that we are already half-way through the extradition hearings and that the UK is even more desperate than usual to curry favour with its transatlantic overlords this one is pretty obvious. I only mention it because the Assange case isn’t getting much airtime these days, and he is unlikely to see daylight again once the Americans get their hands on him. He made them look like idiots, which is the surest way to irritate the powerful.

In the unlikely event that the judicial route is unsuccessful, he may well suffer some unfortunate “accident”. I’ll still count that as half a hit. However, if the end of 2021 finds Mr Assange enjoying a pina colada on some tropical beach, I’ll have missed this one. To be honest, I would prefer that outcome, but it isn’t up to me.

(2) Boris Johnson to leave office

If this happens, I don’t think many people outside the UK will miss him. It might seem unlikely, given that his government has a huge majority, but it will be his own party that does for him. They have plenty of form in this area: Conservative leaders who don’t cut the mustard are traditionally disposed of without mercy. Even Mrs Thatcher got the chop from her own side rather than the electorate.

The motivation for this will be Brexit. At some point in 2021, and sooner rather than later, it will become apparent that this was not the masterstroke which we were assured that it would be. We don’t need to get to the point where there are food riots for this to become an issue. The obvious move to limit the political damage, from the Conservative Party’s point of view, is to blame it on Boris. Brexit would have been marvellous, the line will be, if only this bumbling incompetent hadn’t been in charge.

Now I hold no brief for Mr Johnson. He is indeed a bumbling incompetent, as has been shown multiple times throughout his career. I will shed no tears for him if he is bundled out of Downing Street. But I don’t think you can pin all of it on Boris. Still, this is going to be the best option available, and I expect the Conservatives to give it a go.

It may be wondered who will succeed him, given the startling assembly of third-rate no-hopers whom he has gathered into his Cabinet. History tells us, though, that being a third-rate no-hoper is no bar to leading the Conservative Party. They had Ian Duncan Smith in charge not so long ago. Those with longer memories may recall, with some effort, John Major. As for David Cameron, least said soonest mended.

So the office of Prime Minister will be filled by someone or other. I don’t expect them to be a spectacular improvement on Mr Johnson, although they can’t be much worse. Unless we get Gavin Williamson. Or Priti Patel. Or… I’ll stop now before it gets too depressing.

(3) The USA to suffer its Suez moment

The Suez Crisis of 1956 is generally thought of as the moment when the UK was obliged to recognise that it was no longer as big a force in the world as it had been. Essentially, the Egyptians had nationalised the Suez Canal – which was an entirely legal act – and we decided that we would relieve them of it, with the assistance of France and Israel. We failed to get the permission of the USA to do this, and were forced to desist.

For a very long time, the USA has been accustomed to throwing its weight around in foreign affairs, replacing national governments as it saw fit. After the collapse of the USSR, there didn’t seem to be anyone who could stop them doing whatever they wanted. This led to a somewhat euphoric period, summed up in Karl Rove‘s notorious declaration: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Those who create their own reality sooner or later collide with some solid object that disillusions them, and this is what I think will happen to the USA next year. Foreign adventures are the traditional way for a precarious regime to cement national solidarity – this was why Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, for instance. It is pretty generally agreed that the USA’s internal affairs are in a somewhat parlous state right now. They are likely to try and push their luck, and my guess is they will embarrass themselves.

What form will that take? There are plenty of hot-spots in the world where Uncle Sam might choose to plant his size nines. The South China Sea suggests itself. Perhaps one or other of the Gulf States might implode. But the USA will try and cross a line, and either Russia or China – or Russia and China acting together – will tell them no. And they will find themselves having to take no for an answer.

This will come as no surprise to anyone outside the USA and will cause complete bafflement and consternation within it, as 9/11 did. Of course I could be wrong about this happening in 2021, but I don’t think I’m wrong about it happening some time soon. We shall see.

(4) Covid-19 to rise again after victory has been declared

Governments everywhere will be keen to claim that the whole Covid-19 thing is now under control, thanks to their brilliant handling of it, and that we can all get back the serious business of creating shareholder value. At least one of them is bound to declare this prematurely, and another major outbreak will ensue.

I won’t state categorically that it will be the UK government that does this, but I wouldn’t bet against it either on current form. It’s likely to occur in a country that has suffered heavily from the virus, because that’s where the most points can be scored for “defeating” it: the US, China, Spain, France and Italy are all candidates.

I am not saying that the pandemic will go on forever. Pandemics don’t. Nobody developed a revolutionary vaccine against the Black Death, but it’s no longer a major problem. This is more about some government claiming to have overcome the virus and then being proved embarrassingly wrong.

When I come to assess this one next year, much will turn on the vague phrase “major outbreak” – I’m sure there will be at least one unambiguous claim of victory.

(5) Another major global financial crisis will hit

This is a matter of when, not if, since there was little done to address the systemic issues in the global financial system that were so cruelly exposed in 2007-8. Which domino will fall first is anyone’s guess. The Italian banking system has been a disaster waiting to happen for some time, and I doubt that the pandemic has helped the situation. Deutsche Bank is also in less than perfect health.

We could also be looking at a currency crisis: sterling, or (heaven forfend) the US dollar could come under pressure. Money is being created hand over fist to prop up industrial economies in the face of the pandemic. Certainly the UK government has been throwing it around like a sailor on shore leave, having apparently discovered the elusive magic money tree. The Federal Reserve in the US has also put in eye-wateringly vast sums.

Plenty of major national economies have been flying on one engine for a while. Brazil is in serious trouble. China might be, as nobody really believes the official government statistics. Lord knows what will happen to the UK, but it’s not going to be pretty. If even a second-tier economy has to default on its international debt obligations, something somewhere in the financial system is likely to break.

Nobody really knows how long all this can keep going. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about the timing and 2021 will not turn out to be the moment Wile E Coyote finds out he has run out of cliff. But if not next year, soon enough.

So there you have it: my five cheerful prognostications for 2021. I don’t expect to be right on all of them. Let’s reconvene in twelve months’ time and see. Tell me what you think in the comments!

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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