Against the backdrop of the Conservative Party’s disappointing performance in the local elections last week, the Queen’s Speech represents a major opportunity for the Prime Minister to relaunch the Government’s agenda ahead of an anticipated 2024 General Election.
Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Partygate have, in very different ways, been a huge distraction from the Conservative’s promises outlined in the 2019 General Election. The legislation proposed today is intended to set out the Government’s direction of travel as Number 10 begins to shape its offer to the electorate in the face of a cost of living crisis which sits at the very top of a burgeoning in-tray.
Among a number of headline-grabbing policy reveals, the Government’s announcement of a new body to oversee the UK energy system, a move that in effect renationalises a key part of energy infrastructure, stands out. Tasked with boosting energy security and accelerating the transition to net zero, the Future System Operator will play a key role in enacting the Government’s recently unveiled Energy Security Strategy.
The issue of energy costs and security have become hugely important in recent months, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Government has grappled with the challenge of trying to secure its energy supply in the short term, while continuing to pursue its longer-term Net Zero ambitions, drawing criticism from certain sections of the Tory party. The wide-reaching Energy Security Bill tries to balance these by providing new financing models for low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture technology, as well as introducing regulations to extend the household energy price cap beyond 2023.
A central Tory pledge, and an important part of its plans to retain Red Wall voters, is its commitment to levelling up the country. The aptly named Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which aims to revitalise UK high streets by giving local authorities more power over how they are utilised, is a statement of intent of how the Government intends to address regional inequalities. So too is its plan to level up education across the country by making it will easier for schools in England to join multi-academy trusts and strengthen their regulatory framework. As the Government looks to demonstrate the benefits of leaving the EU, the Brexit Freedoms Bill will see up to 1,400 “messy” EU laws torn up with the Government pledging to repeal and reform business regulations inherited from the EU.
While every Queen’s Speech has a very British element of pomp and ceremony, the speech itself tends to balance flagship policies with more routine, legislative housekeeping. Of the Bills introduced by the speech, four of them are carried over from the previous parliamentary session. These include the Online Safety Bill, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and the High-Speed Rail (Crewe-Manchester) Bill. These represent sizeable pieces of complex, and in some cases controversial legislation, which Government will look to roll out over the coming year.
No doubt the headlines over the coming days will be dominated by news of new policies unveiled, but the Queen’s Speech is often interesting for what is not included – the Bills and policies quietly shelved by the Government. With the Prime Minister is still under threat from a potential rebellion on his backbenches, and desperate to win back the confidence of voters, several controversial Bills opposed by the Tory rank and file have been dropped by the Prime Minister as he tries to shore up support on the right of the Conservative Party.
Despite promising a planning bill in the previous Queen’s Speech, this was dropped in favour of more modest changes to be included in the Levelling Up Bill, following concerns expressed from the backbenches, particularly those in rural southern constituencies, that the plans would lead to an expansion of housing in southern England approved by a planning algorithm.
There were numerous reports that the Tories were looking to ditch less ‘sexy’ policies, such as the reform of the audit market and the establishment of a football regulator, yet both snuck into today’s statement to the surprise of many.
With this Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister faces the joint challenge of rallying the electorate behind core manifesto pledges, while keeping his own backbenches and activists on side. Against a backdrop of rising inflation (with more energy price hikes to come), higher taxes, the Bank of England’s forecast recession and the impact of the war in Ukraine, demonstrating that these new Bills will make a practical difference to peoples’ lives is going to be a major challenge.