To call the Queen’s Speech a triumph of style over substance would be unfair. Unfair, that is, to the meanings of both ‘triumph’ and ‘style’. Rather than represent any significant legislative victory, any example of thoughtful governing strategy or a demonstration of policy inventiveness, this was a speech without a clear theme, without any over-arching ideas, and without any obvious direction. And the ‘style’ was only that provided by the Prince of Wales, who did an excellent job of filling in for Her Majesty.
Nevertheless, one could not accuse the Government’s agenda of being insubstantial. 38 bills is quite a lot – and one suspects far more than will actually ever be voted on and enacted into law. Still, they are a ready demonstration of the ineffable capacity of Ministers, their SPADs, and their departments to produce an ever-growing number of ways to regulate, tax, or otherwise inconvenience us. Or, if not actually to do so, to threaten such a thing until they realise their proposals are unworkable.
Hello again, Conversion Therapy Bill.
Taken together, the measures contained within the speech showed a level of incoherence over what it wants to be previously matched only by the Spice Girls in, erm, ‘Wannabe’. But instead of Ginger, Sporty, Posh et al telling us they “really wanna zigazig ah” – thanks ladies – we instead got a Tory Government that can’t decide whether it wants to be a warrior for the downtrodden or Dirty Harry with an Estuary accent, and so shall “zigazig ah” between the two.
So alongside the aforementioned Conversion Therapy Bill, we got a Social Housing Bill, to improve public accommodation, an Animal Welfare Bill, to be kind to puppies, and a Renters Bill, to make life even harder for the average landlord. But we also got a Public Order Bill, to give the police more powers against “eco hooligans”, and a National Security Bill, to reform the security services.
Which is it to be? Are we back in the land of “hug a hoody”, with reheated Cameroonism, and a Conservative party preoccupied by the low-paid, the environment, and gay rights? Or is this a full-throated, right-wing, lock-em-up, conservatism? Does the Government want to sure up its tough-on-crime credentials, appease backbenchers, and hope the Red Wall stays onside if enough fights are picked with hippies and students?
That both these approaches made their way into the Queen’s Speech suggests the Government doesn’t entirely know, and that it is being pulled in different directions. Ministers are pursuing their own projects, for better or for worse, within their departmental fiefdoms, and advisers are whispering strange voodoo into their ears. As such, you get a full but confused agenda for the session ahead, with the sheer number of bills an effort to mask the lack of thought behind them.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the speech’s headline Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. One of the undercurrents of this government has been its ongoing efforts to flesh out what ‘levelling up’ actually means. Michael Gove may have been given a department named after it, but no better answer has so far been found than “chucking as much money we can spare at the North and hoping it votes for us again.” And then being surprised when Southerners vote for the Lib Dems.
What this bill seeks to do, fundamentally, is to hand more power to communities to interfere with local planning development. Recently, centre-right outriders have tried to lance the boil of planning reform by highlighting the idea of “street votes” and the like which, they hope, will make our sclerotic planning system go away. I have long thought that is a pipe dream, and now we have the Government proposing that your neighbours can vote on whether you can have an extension. The mind boggles.
Alas, when Johnson’s policy chief is the MP who helped kill the Government’s own planning reforms, which the Chesham and Amersham by-election finally finished off, the Conservatives will remain doggedly committed to shooting themselves in the foot long-term. More importantly, they will still block the most obvious route to boosting growth rapidly, by building houses.
And whilst planning reform is the single most vital way in which this Government can ever hope to future-proof our party’s prospects, it is that focus on boosting growth and cutting day-to-day costs as soon as possible that will be vital to any hopes of re-election Johnson may have. It was in this respect that the Queen’s Speech let voters down the most yesterday, and where the Government has ultimately been self-defeating.
Whilst SW1 has been getting itself into a tizzy over curries, tractors, and growlers, the cost-of-living of living crunch has continued to bite. Stagflation looms ever-closer, the Jaws theme snarling in the background as it chomps down on this government’s political prospects. As inflation zooms past 10%, hitting a thirty-year high, voters are noticing price rises in the shops and spiking energy costs. That is much more important to the people who will be deciding the next election than the Government’s ongoing efforts to stop puppy smuggling.
Yet whilst the Prince of Wales intoned that the “Government’s priority is to grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families”, there was precious little evidence of that in the rest of the Speech. Of course, ministers can’t just legislate away inflation. But they are also not just a set of King Cnuts, powerless to take action as the tides of economic despair wash across the country and drag them under.
That Starmer focused upon the idea of an Emergency Budget, and that the Prime Minister hinted further action was to come, suggests Westminster is beginning to wake up to the problem. Action against Insulate Britain, a crackdown on no-platforming, and an end to boycotts of Israel are all well and good. But if the Government really has given up on big ideas and intends to keep campaigning all the way through to the next election, then it really must junk some of this fluff and tackle this crisis before it boots them out of office.