It was over 900 words long and included 38 bills, but somehow this Queen’s Speech feels so much less than the sum of its parts. The danger is that she will not so much “reset” the Boris Johnson government as she will reset the clock on Groundhog Day with the same formula of over-promising and under-delivering.
Right at the beginning, there were big words about plans to “grow and strengthen the economy” and “help ease the cost of living.” There was rhetoric about leveling up and helping the NHS recover from the pandemic. But in each there was light porridge and only the promise of more jam tomorrow.
The speech included important new legislation with the potential to have a long-term impact on our daily lives. The Energy Bill could continue the move away from fossil fuels, the transportation bill is a part of the renationalization of the railways that rolls back John Major’s ill-fated privatization.
The Grading and Regeneration Bill will at least attempt to address the problem of deteriorating main streets. The revamping of the Mental Health Act, the Seafarers Bill (to deter future P&O-style redundancies) and the updating of the Official Secrets Act will likely be welcomed by many.
Overall, though, the speech struggled to patch up the cracks that last week’s local elections exposed in Johnson’s coalition of voters that elected him in 2019.
Liberal conservatives in the south may still recoil from “culture war” moves like the privatization of Channel 4, deportations from Rwanda and free speech disputes on college campuses. Cash-strapped former Labor Leave voters in the Midwest and North will want urgent action to lower bills rather than the promise of “outdoor dining” (something the Leveling Up Bill is intended to accomplish).
A speech talking about “cutting taxes” just weeks after leading the UK to its highest tax burden in decades isn’t exactly a straight deal either. The tension within the Tory party on that issue is unresolved, as is the question of the urgency with which the prime minister will act on the cost of living.
The only bill that is not mentioned but has to pass every year is a finance bill to enact the Budget. And with the Budget only in the fall, Johnson’s own preface to the Queen’s Speech seemed to suggest that we may have to wait until then for more help with the bills. “Over the coming months we will continue to examine what else we can do to ease the pressures,” he said. “Coming months” and “examine” do not sound like the urgent action some MPs want.
Like many of the Prime Minister’s statements, the Queen’s Speech feels like a plea for more time. There are plenty of references to “2030” as targets for measuring real change, paving the way for Conservatives to say in the next election that they need another term to make it all a reality.
The public will give the government some slack over the pandemic, but the suspicion among many will be that some of the promises of 2019 were simply not backed by a proper plan and, judging by the set of fragmented and disappointing bills from today, they still are. t.
For all the talk about helping the NHS, there is still a huge black hole of lack of a workforce plan. Johnson is speaking today about record numbers of staff at a time when there are record numbers of vacancies in the NHS and social care (100,000 each). There was nothing about how to get to that “one million” new homes commitment manifesto. Childcare, social care (we are still at the White Paper stage) and workers’ rights (the Post-Brexit Employment Bill has been delayed again) are all in a holding pattern.
In fact, this felt less like a speech from the queen than a statement of intent. The message to the rebel MPs was “keep your nerves, this is mid-term blues”, the message to the public was “hold your breath, help will come later this year”, the message to Keir Starmer was “hold my beer “.
The broader problem is that Johnson always seems to be begging for more time, with the goal of limping across the next deadline that will ensure his survival another week, another month or another year. Local elections, the queen’s speech, the Sue Gray report, the summer by-elections, the summer recess come and go, but MPs and the public can conclude, in the immortal words of Theresa May, “nothing has changed” because the Prime Minister himself will never change.
That is why one line in particular stood out in the government propaganda that accompanied the speech. Referring to Ukraine, he said: “The government is providing the necessary leadership in these difficult times.”
But just as Prince Charles’s speech on behalf of his mother made everyone think about the unthinkable of life after the Queen, its content may also spark thoughts about life after Johnson. Unlike Her Majesty, the Prime Minister has been accused over the past year of both a moral vacuum and a leadership vacuum in the standards of public life. A policy vacuum – over the cost of living in a slow-growing, high-inflation economy – is perhaps even worse.
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