Johnson Reigns Supreme

The Prime Minister begins the new parliamentary session on the back of impressive gains in local elections across the UK and prized victories in Hartlepool, Teesside and the West Midlands and has used today’s Queen’s Speech to set the legislative stage for a post-Brexit Britain as we start to emerge from the pandemic.

Remarkably for a party in power for 11 years, the Conservatives continue chipping away at traditional Labour heartlands. These new Tory voters, like the rest of the country, will now look to Boris Johnson to deliver. The Queen’s Speech shows us how he plans to go about it.

The legislative programme features 30 Bills. These include manifesto priorities like planning reform, details of the post-Brexit state aid regime and strengthening the immigration system. It also made pledged to address lost learning during the pandemic and combat racial and ethnic disparities.

Another interesting package of measures centre around climate change and the environment. With the G7 just a month away and COP26 on the horizon, the UK is looking to be a global leader in its commitments to sustainability and biodiversity. The Environment Bill has returned, while three separate Bills promoting the highest animal welfare standards are being introduced. The Prime Minister’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, is a passionate environmentalist and a close confidant of Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith. Both want the Government to use its post-Brexit freedoms to showcase international leadership in this space.

The speech also carries measures designed to support the UK’s recovery from the pandemic such as the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which will support the development of a “skills accelerator programme” in partnership with local employers and colleges. Meanwhile, the pandemic has provided the Prime Minister with an opportunity to press ahead with ambitious reforms to the NHS, giving Ministers more control power to block the closure of hospitals and overrule health managers.

Finally, Covid-19 has created a legislative backlog, which means that several pieces of legislation featured in the 2019 Queen’s Speech return – including laws to protects the rights of renters and the long-awaited Online Safety Bill.

As well as seeking to get the Government’s legislative programme back on track, today’s Queen’s Speech features a Bill that replaces the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. The Prime Minister is currently flying high in the polls but he won’t take this support for granted. A return to a system where he can trigger a general election at any point within five years of the previous one may see him cash in his chips sooner rather than later.

Substantive social care reform is conspicuous by its absence. While the Queen noted that proposals on social care reform will be brought forward, the consensus is that plans to solve the current social care crisis – so needed in light of the pandemic – need to come sooner.

If we are looking for a golden thread running through the speech and accompanying legislative agenda, it might be that this programme demonstrates how committed the Government is to provide substance to the rhetoric and demonstrate to voters, particularly in the midlands and the north, that they will experience lasting positive change. There appears to be a widespread view among commentators that the last Labour Government, despite some investment in the regions, did not do enough to improve lives and livelihoods. It has suffered electorally ever since.

While today’s Queen’s Speech was unfurled with less pomp and ceremony than we’d usually expect due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Government has used this opportunity to finally tell the country what it stands for. It seeks to bridge some of the old divides between right and left, London and the rest of the UK and is designed to consolidate Johnson’s hold on the nation for years to come.

That said, Johnson won’t be able to legislate his way out of the Scotland question. A new Act of Union to make it explicit that the Westminster Government must agree to an independence referendum did not feature today. The Conservatives have yet to come up with a clear strategy to address secessionist tensions north of the border and this risks overshadowing Johnson’s term in office and his legacy as Prime Minister. Having navigated the UK’s departure from the EU, they may soon be facing a battle to save a political union much closer to home.

Charley Sambridge, Account Manager, Public Affairs

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