A King’s Speech that failed to move the dial
Last week, King Charles formally opened the new session of Parliament, marking the first time that a King read the Gracious Address in more than 70 years. His State Opening featured all the dignity and splendour of the Crown-in-Parliament, but this could not paper over the vacuum where we would expect to find an agenda for government.
At around 11-and-a-half minutes, it was the longest speech given by a Monarch since 2005, but it was quickly criticised for a lack of substance. Featuring less than we would expect at this point in the legislative cycle, there was no clear and unifying theme, other than political positioning ahead of the 2024 general election.
What was said?
The King’s Speech was designed to send a message that this Government is on the right track and on the side of the British people, with a clear overtone that there is no need to change track at the election. His Majesty set out that his administration would “make the difficult but necessary long-term decisions to change the country for the better”, with pledges to prioritise economic growth, tackle inflation, and safeguard the health and security of the British people for future generations.
The Speech placed greatest emphasis on crime and justice, with a multitude of bills announced, including the Criminal Justice Bill, the Sentencing Bill, and a review of the Arbitration Bill. The election dynamic was also evident in His Majesty’s announcement of an Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill to set up a new for production licenses in UK waters, intended to maximise this wedge issue. The message was clear: the Conservatives hope to put these issues front-and-centre in the election campaign, to wrongfoot and outflank Labour in 2024.
However, it is clear after a week that the speech has failed to move the dial. Indeed, it was more notable for its omissions than its announcements. It lacked meaningful mention of education beyond reducing the number of young people studying ‘poor quality’ university degrees; it failed to mention health and NHS reform (beyond the ban on smoking); it had little to say on housing; and there were few measures to ease the cost-of-living crisis.
A ‘smokefree generation’, rather than a focus on NHS reform
The Prime Minister’s headline conference announcement on smoking made the Gracious Speech. King Charles outlined that the Government will introduce a Tobacco and Vapes Bill, designed to create a ‘smokefree generation’. It will mean that those aged 14 and under will never legally be able to buy cigarettes – a policy previously adopted by New Zealand.
Whilst this pledge came alongside a commitment to tackle waiting lists and “transform the long-term workforce” of the NHS, there was little else for the health service, suggesting that health will not be central to Sunak’s re-election pitch. Much to the dismay of health practitioners, the 2019 manifesto commitment for mental health reform has not been taken up, with no mention of the topic in the speech.
There was minimal mention of housing despite the housing crisis
On housing, the Government is playing catch up on its 2019 manifesto commitments, after a Parliament largely taken up by other priorities. The King announced the introduction of a Leasehold and Freehold Bill, designed to make it easier and cheaper for leaseholders when it comes to buying their freehold and extending their lease, and to ensure developers and freeholders are held to account for funding remediation work to their properties. This will not, however, mean the migration of all existing leasehold flats to commonhold.
The King also confirmed the continuation of the Renters Reform Bill, which seeks to abolish Section 21 no-fault notices and limit evictions to prescribed circumstances, will continue its passage through the Commons. It is expected that this Bill will finish its line-by-line scrutiny by the Public Bill Committee by 5th December. Notably, the mooted Nutrient Neutrality Bill was not mentioned, suggesting that the Government has given up on the abolition of legacy EU rules which it had previously claimed were blocking 100,000 new homes. Here, we can see the cumulative impact of campaigners on water quality across the Blue Wall.
Beyond the implementation of the Levelling Up and Regeneration legislation, the King did not announce fundamental planning reform, in marked contrast to Labour’s rhetoric on the subject.
In a bid to exploit a policy divide between the Conservatives and Labour on energy and net zero, the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill was announced, which will require annual rounds for new drilling licenses in the North Sea. The legislation proposes to increase the UK’s energy independence through attracting new investors and supporting a more gradual transition to net zero.
The legislation has been introduced in what the King stated were efforts to prioritise reducing the UK’s reliance on international energy markets, and boost energy security at home. Rather interestingly, the phrase ‘net zero’ was only used once in the nearly 12-minute speech – a nod no doubt to the PM’s recent announcement on net zero, which opted to promote a more pragmatic approach to the challenge at hand.
Rail reform was unveiled via ‘Great British Railway’s
Following on from the Prime Minister’s Conference decision to launch of a ‘Network North’ programme of local rail and transport upgrades in plan, King reiterated the Government’s commitment to “deliver faster and more reliable journeys” for those travelling up and down the country. This promise was given further life by the announcement of a draft Rail Reform Bill, that will improve efficiency and accountability and see the Transport Secretary’s franchising authority functions transferred to the newly proposed Great British Railways.
The King also outlined plans to introduce a legal framework for the introduction of driverless cars on Britain’s roads, as well as a proposal to provide Transport for London with licensing powers to regulate pedicabs. The ‘Pedicabs Bill’ has been seen as symbolic of the Government’s lack of imagination in this speech.
International partners were not forgotten
Building upon successful negotiation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) by the Department for Business and Trade this summer, His Majesty announced a Bill to ratify and implement the trade agreement in the UK. The deal marks the biggest trade deal since Brexit, and it represents a major obstacle to Starmer’s plan to bring the UK closer to the EU’s economic orbit, so it featured strongly in the King’s economic growth narrative.
…but it was crime and justice that stole the show
In this King’s Speech, the Prime Minister made clear the emphasis that the Government will place on keeping the British people safe in the year running up to the election. With six new or amended pieces of legislation centering around crime and justice, the Government’s intention to draw dividing lines with Labour on this topic was stark.
Despite prisons being at full capacity, the speech included mention of the Criminal Justice Bill, which will see stricter and longer sentencing for criminals and further powers given to probation officers. Legislation for tougher life sentences also featured in the speech, and the Terrorism Protection Bill, coined as ‘Martyn’s law’, was introduced to “improve the safety and security of public services” in the event of a terror threat – delivering a key manifesto pledge.
What does this mean going forward?
However, it is clear after a week that the Speech has failed to move the dial. In October, the Prime Minister had four flagship opportunities to reshape the political dynamic ahead of the 2024 election: Party Conference, this King’s Speech, the Autumn Statement, and the Spring Budget. The failure of this speech to remake the political weather means that all eyes are now on Jeremy Hunt and the upcoming fiscal events.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the announcement of this legislation does not mean it will get through Parliament in time for the next election. More of the agenda announced last week will be delivered if Sunak pushes for an Autumn rather than a Spring election, but even so, many of these proposed initiatives will not make it to the Statute Book.
After a week, the main thing this Speech has achieved is to draw dividing lines between the Conservatives and Labour heading into the election. The shape of that 2024 contest is becoming clearer – and will only solidify as we progress through next year.
*Image Posted by: Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street and His Majesty The King – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-kings-speech-2023 image