Before yesterday’s traditional co-opting of gilded coach and po-faced monarch to set out the UK government’s agenda, Conservatives had been arguing amongst themselves over a range of ideas including proposed bans on LBGT+ conversion therapy and homeless people using tents.
So what? They didn’t make the cut. The first King’s Speech in 70 years was instead designed to set dividing lines between the Conservatives and Labour as a prelude to next year’s general election. It also needed to answer the urgent question of whether Rishi Sunak has any natural feel for politics. The evidence increasingly suggests he doesn’t. In the end the speech
- left out gimmicks that had been heavily trailed but also heavily criticised;
- left in boiled-over Tory standby policies on crime and prisons; and
- left allies hanging, with nothing substantial on bread-and-butter issues that polls say matter most to voters.
Invisi-bill. Many pieces of proposed legislation raised eyebrows in Westminster by their absence from the speech, underscoring the extent to which Sunak is being buffeted around by vocal colleagues. These included
- pensions reform;
- plans to stop councils bringing in low-traffic neighbourhoods; and
- a ban on “nutrient neutrality” requirements, which would stop developers polluting sensitive catchment areas.
Nor was there anything on the cost of living or the overstressed NHS, both of which will have to be addressed by the chancellor in his autumn statement later this month.
Tents. The proposal to ban them for the homeless, reported over the weekend and publicly backed by Suella Braverman, prompted criticism from several Tory MPs after the home secretary suggested it was part of a “lifestyle choice”. It was never going to be included in the King’s Speech, but it eclipsed Sunak’s agenda nonetheless.
Tense. This continual dance between prime minister and home secretary fuels speculation as to whether she may be sacked and whether that is actually her plan. It also leads many to question Sunak’s grip on government – and his wider political ability.
Sunak didn’t enter parliament until 2015. Tories grumble that he’s not politically adept or a natural campaigner. But with options for a general election narrowing to just two plausible points – next May or the following autumn – the time to learn is running out.
Left in. Of the 21 bills the King did list, seven were carried over from the last session and one – rail reform – is a draft bill, meaning it’s unlikely to become law before a general election.
Labour MPs called the package “tinkering”; Tories were just as damning. One backbencher who watched the ceremony “with little enthusiasm” told Tortoise there was little to take back to constituents.
A former minister and one-time Sunak supporter said: ”It’s not very coherent, is it?”
Crime and punishment. The closest thing to a legislative centrepiece was a trio of bills designed to
- mandate courts to impose longer sentences for serious offences such as rape, while also reducing the number of short sentences;
- compel defendants to attend their sentence hearings, following Lucy Letby’s refusal to attend hers after being convicted of murdering seven infants in her care as a nurse; and
- transfer British inmates overseas as a way of dealing with overcrowding in UK prisons.
Homes and heat. In addition, bills will be introduced to make it easier for leaseholders to buy their freeholds and for oil and gas firms to get licences for North Sea exploration. Both could open clear blue water between the two main parties. Whether they’ll do much to galvanise swing voters is another matter.
Friendly feedback. The Times said the only items on the King’s list likely to make it into history books were a rolling smoking ban first announced last month, and a law allowing driverless car owners to avoid liability in accidents. The Telegraph wondered aloud if banning smoking was the government’s business.
More wounding was the recent verdict of a columnist for Sunak’s local news website, Yorkshire Bylines, who called him “quietly incompetent”. If that sticks, his first King’s Speech will be his last.
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