The King’s Speech marks the State Opening of Parliament for the 2023-2024 legislative session and sets out the Government’s ambitions for what it hopes to pursue over the next year. It marks the first such speech for King Charles III as monarch and the first for Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister.
Whilst 12 months is a long time in politics, it is much shorter in legislative terms and, if the Government hopes to be successful in passing the bills announced today, they will have to act swiftly and effectively to prioritise what they can before the next general election. Given these timelines, the programme of legislation introduced is less ambitious than previous years, focusing on themes of criminal justice, energy and smoking, whilst carrying over several landmark bills, including that on rental sector reform.
What was covered?
Central to the speech was a commitment to tougher sentencing and criminal justice reforms. The Government will hope that the pledges reinforce its existing record as being strong on crime, but current issues in the court system around overcrowding and the rise of violent crimes, present more substantial challenges for the Government to tackle if they are to reestablish themselves as the party of law-and-order. Indeed, after being in office for over a decade, it will be difficult for them to hold anyone else responsible for the current state of the system.
The Government confirmed it would continue to progress the Renters (Reform) Bill which was introduced in the last parliamentary session and is currently at the committee stage in the House of Commons. The Bill contains the Conservative Party’s long-held pledge to remove section 21 evictions but last month the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove confirmed the changes would not be made until relevant court reforms had been made. A new Leasehold and Freehold Bill also featured in the King’s Speech. The proposed bill had been trailed for some time and includes changes to make it ‘cheaper and easier for more leaseholders to extend their lease, buy their freehold, and take over management of their building.’
Delivering on Sunak’s conference commitments, the speech reiterated the Government’s plans to deliver a phased ban on smoking, so that no person born after 1 January 2009 will be able to legally purchase cigarettes. The Tobacco Products Bill will therefore be a primary focus of parliament in the next legislative session, despite the controversy it has caused within the Conservative Party amongst outspoken libertarians, unhappy with government restrictions on personal activities and the arbitrary dates of enforcement.
In an attempt to put the Labour Party on the spot whilst delivering ‘home grown’ fuel, the speech also set out plans to exploit the North Sea resources. This will see new licenses to drill for oil and gas made available and will be used to combat the energy shocks experienced since the outset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The policy follows several rollbacks from the Government on its environmental commitments and contradicts the party’s claims about making the difficult long-term decisions, with green energy figures blaming Britian’s existing reliance on fossil fuels as contributing to high energy costs.
What was missing?
What has not been included in the speech is, in many ways, equally as important as the issues that have been. They are indicative of the areas that the Government is keen to avoid and that the party is not united on.
Most notably, the speech included no plans for the Government to introduce restrictions (including possible fines) for charities providing the homeless with tents, despite recent comments from the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, that this was to be set forth. The apparent division between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary on this issue provides an insight into the current state of the cabinet and collective responsibility, with numerous ministers having distanced themselves from the language used by Braverman. This is also indicative of wider struggles within the Conservative Party more broadly between the moderate branch behind Sunak and the right-wing of the party, many of whom would have supported Liz Truss in the leadership election and would likely support Braverman in a leadership challenge.
Beyond this, there was no mention of mental health, despite commitments in the 2017 and 2019 Conservative manifestos to deliver reforms to the existing Mental Health Act. This decision has initiated fierce criticism from the mental health sector and from Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker, who remarked that not delivering on the commitments was “failing” patients. Moreover, for all the talk of cutting NHS waiting lists in recent weeks, there was also no major announcements around health, although, it should be noted that the Department for Health and Social Care is already delivering on some of these key areas, e.g., investing in AI technology and deliver Community Diagnostic Centres, and thus on the NHS Long-Term Plan.
For voters hoping to see the promised ban on conversion practices, they were also left wanting. First pledged by Theresa May, a recent back-peddle on LGBTQ+ issues by the party has meant that this commitment has gone unfulfilled. Elliot Colburn MP, Alician Kearns MP and Dehenna Davison MP have all criticised the decision to leave the ban out of the speech.
In wider terms, there were no policies announced on welfare that would seek to address the contemporary issues facing the voters. Whilst more detail on support through the cost-of-living crisis is likely to be announced in the Autumn Statement given the nature of this fiscal event, there were also no measures introduced that specifically appeal directly to either ‘red wall’ or ‘blue wall’ voters, despite much of the party’s 2019 swing depending on the former’s support.
Following an unimaginative speech, the pressure on the Chancellor to deliver for the British public at the Autumn Statement in just two weeks’ time has intensified. Voters – and indeed backbench MPs – will be expecting measures to be introduced that address the hardships they are facing and that demonstrate that the Government is in-touch with the day-to-day concerns of the public. With, at best, 14 months remaining until a general election is held, the Government has a long way to go in assuring the public of this, leaving Conservative strategists to wonder whether today’s speech – with its focus on criminal justice and energy – was a wasted opportunity.