The Conservative Manifesto of 2019 took no risks, because that of 2017 had done – and the gamble failed. The Tories lost seats because of a social care policy for which the pitch had not been rolled, a fightback against Jeremy Corbyn that was never delivered, and a leader who, in any event, could not persuade.
Boris Johnson is a far more vivid communicator and, as it turned out, an infinitely more cautious politician – as well as one with a compulsion to cheer people up and make them laugh, or try to. Furthermore, he wanted no distraction at the time from “getting Brexit done”.
This combination of playing it safe and Prime Ministerial ebullience are the parents of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech. It was delivered as the Government faces a double challenge, half of it unforeseen 18 months ago – namely, preparing Britain for the new age of Brexit and the new era after the pandemic (God willing). Is it up to the challenge?
There are three main reforming responses in the speech. The first was presaged in the manifesto, and should be deliverable. The second was too, but may not be. The third wasn’t.
The first is the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. This will bring in a lifetime skills guarantee. Like so much else in the speech, we want to see the details. But this has the potential to be the most transformational item in the speech, redressing the imbalance that leaves Britain with strong academic but weak vocational education.
Next, the Planning Bill. We don’t see how all of it can pass the Commons, the Tory majority of 80 or so regardless. Remember the fate of the algorithm. And read our summary of this housing debate last year, in which 19 Conservative MPs queued up to complain of “levelling over green fields with concrete”.
Finally, a Health and Care Bill. No structural NHS reform of any significance was proposed in the manifesto, but Covid showed up the weaknesses as well as strengths of the system. Is the Government now preparing to exalt co-operation rather than competition – shifting health policy to the left, despite more pressure on the system?
So we have one reform with tremendous potential; one which, through no fault of Ministers, won’t happen (or at least will be watered down), and one which looks unlikely to help access the private suppliers who can help reduce queues. So much for the principal reforms that are in the speech. What about the ones that aren’t? Again, we cite three.
The one identified by nearly everyone is the absence of a Social Care Bill. But the same newspapers that are lamenenting the absence of a Bill would be denouncing the presence of one, were it there. There is no way social care can be reformed without more people paying out more money – in tax, insurance or both. Nonetheless, the moment of decision can’t be postponed forever.
Next, net zero. The Environment Bill is carried over from the last session into this one. The Speech said that the Government will “commit the UK to achieving net zero emissions by 2050”. It does nothing to prepare voters for taxes on their hybrid cars, bans on the oil and gas boilers they use at home, hikes in their electricity bills and measures to deter them from eating meat – all of which are either coming or may.
Finally, devolution. As one former senior Minister put it to ConHome: “we can’t deliver levelling up, a skills revolution, an industrial strategy and zero carbon from the centre. The new mayors have a convening power: they can get local businesses, the Chief Constable, the NHS bigwigs, the university vice-chancellors, the local enteprise partnerships round the table, and come up with a plan.”
The proposed Devolution White Paper has been through postponements and gone through revisions. But there is nothing to suggest that Ministers will act with the urgency required – or, indeed, that Downing Street has made up its mind what it wants. Wanted: not a table d’hote menu which local government must eat off, but an a la carte choice of new powers for them to select from (or refuse).
We don’t mean to imply that the Speech is unpolitical. In one sense, it is deeply political, and all the better for it: the Government proposes curbing the excesses of judicial review, requiring photo ID when voting and junking the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. The last implies a possible general election in 2023, which this site envisaged when the Budget was delivered.
That mention is a reminder that Bills aren’t everything – even most things. Secondary legislation, the bully pulpit and executive action achieve at least as much. So, then: if you roll this Speech, that last Budget and everything else together, is there a plan to deliver the growth without which levelling up, however defined, will be impossible?
Our take on Rishi Sunak’s measures, delivered after the waters had settled, was that they promised “infrastructure spending, possible tax rises, pots of money from the centre for those provincial seats, limited localism, plus some levelling-up but little reform. That’s a mix of pluses and minuses, but not a plan for growth”.
The Speech develops the theme. It holds fast to the centre ground of politics, as this site and James Frayne identify it: a bit left on economics, a bit right on culture. On economics, there is the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (carried over), the post-Brexit Subsidy Control Bill and the Procurement Bill.
The first, the ARPA Bill, sets the tone: it is the Dominic Cummings legacy project, a Bismarkian, state-driven enterprise to discover and market the technologies of the future. On culture, there is a Free Speech Bill. Ministers are shy of spelling out the details of the proposed conversion therapy ban (which is wise) and how they will respond to the Sewell Report (which they should do as soon as possible).
Culture and security morph, at least as far as the Speech is concerned, so there’s a Counter China threats Bill, sorry, Counter state threats Bill – not before time. Elsewhere, there is no sign that Downing Street has yet squared the circle which pits justice for former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland against the independence of its legal authorities.
Chris White wrote recently on this site that “a normal legislative year, running May to April, could expect to have between 20 and 25 bills”. This Speech lists 28. One can’t complain of a lack of action, if that is to be defined by the number of Bills in a session, and the Speech looks eerily like the last full one of an electoral cycle, with next year’s tailing off as an autumn 2023 election looms.
Something old, something new, something definitely borrowed, not a lot blue. That would be one view of a speech that is at once politically focused and politically distant.
Focused, because it fixes on tearing up any obstacles that might inhibit a quick dash to the polls. Distant, because it is so concentrated on the politics which might deliver another win as to miss policies that could spur national revival. In some cases, like housing, that’s scarcely Ministers’ fault.
In others, the policies are there, or may be – see the lifetime skills guarantee. For Tories, it is good to have a Prime Minister who cheer us up, and even better to have one who is a winner. But overall, there is a sense of an opportunity missed not so much to level up Britain as to level with voters about the scale and steepness of the challenges ahead.