For the first King’s Speech in seven decades not to star Colin Firth, yesterday’s legislative ritual underwhelmed. Not in terms of the customary pomp and circumstance. Britain’s longest-serving understudy performed his role perfectly; Alex Chalk did an admirable job of walking backward in a silly robe and wig.
Instead, the source of my dismay lay in the speech’s content. This may have been the longest address in text since 2005, but it contained the fewest bills since 2014. Reviewing Rishi Sunak’s legislative programme, one becomes aware of a government studiously committed to batting out time, and which places its hopes for re-election not in legislative innovation, but in crossing its fingers and hoping for an economy recovery.
Or a Labour split. Sunak’s pushing back of the Net Zero timeline for the phasing out of petrol cars and gas boilers was sensible. But the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill comes across less as a far-sighted decision to improve our energy security, and more a sheepish attempt to give Labour a headache for a week or so. One could see it easily repealed in the first year of a Keir Starmer government.
Similarly, barring public bodies from conducting boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns was a 2019 manifesto pledge. But in the current climate, one suspects it will, depressingly, only become another lightning rod for the Opposition’s ongoing internal disagreements about the Israel-Hamas conflict. Playing politics with community relations makes one naturally queasy.
It wasn’t the only legislation that seemed like a hangover from an earlier area. The Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill smacked of the environmental enthusiasm of Mr and Mrs Johnson. The Football Governance Bill has been mooted for several years, whereas the Rail Reform Bill – still only a draft – has long struggled to get out of the station. Our Deputy Editor has already lamented the absence of a Union Connectivity Bill.
Neverthless, this is not to say the King made the journey across St James’s Park for nothing. Although it stopped short of Michael Gove’s ambition of abolishing the entire “feudal” system, the Leasehold and Freehold Bill was a welcome step in the right direction, whilst swerving the questionable measure of junking Section 21 orders. Similarly, the legislation to smooth our entry into the CPTPP is the long-awaited culmination of the work of successive Prime Ministers.
Some measures were uncontroversial. After the horrors wrought by Lucy Letby, few are going to disagree with the idea of ensuring sadistic killers attend their sentencing and spend their lives in prison. But other proposed legislation was studiously vague. Have ministers really considered all the implications of allowing the police to enter homes to seize stolen goods without a warrant?
Of course, it remains to be seen what this legislation will look like in practice. Indeed, much of it many never be passed, if we get that spring election which seems to live rent-free in the minds of Labour strategists. Either way, this was Sunak’s opportunity to inform voters of his political priorities before going to the polls. What sort of an impression will he have given?
He certainly won’t have done anything to dispel the usual allegations of technocracy. Mentions of automated vehicles and machine learning sit well with the Prime Minister’s tech bro image. The decision to also bar anyone under 14 from ever being able to buy cigarettes also belies an interventionist streak that will hardly improve Sunak’s standing with the free-market right of the party.
For all Sunak’s talk of taking long-term decisions, this was a King’s Speech squarely designed to keep his party quiet for the next few months. The lack of legislation on nutrient neutrality or conversion therapy was telling. Convincing Tory MPs to ban dodgy pedicabs is easier than getting them to agree to build homes or define a woman.
There is a tactical sense to this. Keeping his MPs united and quiet in the run-up to an election helps maximise Sunak’s chance of winning it. Those around Number 10 often suggest the Prime Minister would use a full term to address one of the country’s major outstanding challenges, such as social care or our undersupply of homes. Banality today thus might facilitate radicalism tomorrow.
But holding off to achieve something in a future administration – which, by all measures, currently seems a distant prospect – leaves ministers open to the charge of inactivity. When David Davis stands up to tell the Commons a “winning King’s Speech” would address health, education, and housing, one has to ask why the Government isn’t already prioritizing them.
We were promised, when he entered Number 10, that Sunak would one day move from calming MPs to delivering his own agenda. I’ve written enough articles imploring him to get on the front-foot that even I’m beginning to sicken of the cricket metaphors. But the question remains: where is this brighter future Sunak keeps claiming to be aiming to offer voters?
Sod your Anglo-Futurism, boys and girls. The Prime Minister is offering the next generation the opportunity to be driven from their over-priced flat by autonomous car to their local tobacconists, only to discover that they can’t buy anything once they get there. As a young voter, it’s hardly fulling me full of confidence for my future. At least ministers can be content in the knowledge that the Media Bill might ensure a sympathetic ear from one or two papers if they fancy a post-election gig as a columnist.
Number 10 would argue that elections are not won or lost by King’s (or Queen’s) Speeches. The swing voters of Darlington or Derby are not going to vote for the Conservatives next year based on what was announced yesterday. All eyes turn towards the upcoming Autumn Statement and next spring’s Budget for the hope of some sort of retail offer.
Yet putting one’s faith for re-election in an economic recovery looks decidedly risky as the Bank of England’s warning about a looming recession becomes increasingly gloomy. Yesterday was an opportunity to put flesh on the bones of Sunak’s promise of change. It was one he ducked. One does not need to look far to see what he could have done, had his ambition been there.