A Queen's Speech should be about more than playing politics

The government announced some bold reforms at the opening of parliament yesterday—but they will require careful handling in parliament

May 11, 2022
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Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A Queen’s Speech is a statement of a government’s policy priorities. But it is also about raw politics, because the strict time limit on each parliamentary session forces the Whips Office and Downing Street to ruthlessly focus on the battles they want to have and trim those that aren’t worth the effort.

And so it was with Tuesday’s state opening of parliament, which saw ministers perceptibly shifting their weight towards the footing of a future election. Reflecting a new team in No 10, this was a government fighting back after a disappointing set of local election results and the ongoing fallout from partygate, and pugnaciously signalling the dividing lines it wants to draw with the Opposition.

The three exceptions to the politicking are the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, the Schools Bill and the Energy Security Bill, which will enact the reforms set out in recent white papers. All three represent long-term, transformative agendas that have been made more urgent by the pandemic and are rightly being given government time. Combined, they may well be the domestic legacy of a parliament bedevilled first by coronavirus and now by sleaze. That is assuming government can muster more delivery grip than it always displays.

There are three really radical ideas in the Levelling-up Bill. First, it will change the incentives around housebuilding so that communities are treated as shareholders in development, with a say over designs and a share of the gains from development, rather than passive recipients. Second, it will establish a new kind of legislative framework for devolution in England, so that many more areas can benefit from strong mayoral governance. Third, it will force owners of persistently vacant high street shops to let them via a public auction. 

The Schools Bill is similarly ambitious. Building on the reforms of the last decade, it will radically expand multi-academy trusts so that every school can benefit from being part of one, and introduce new powers to intervene when schools are failing or children are being given sub-standard home-schooling. This is long overdue. As previous Onward research has shown, there are 200,000 primary age children living in areas with no Good or Outstanding schools, and multi-academy trusts are a proven mechanism to drive up standards and opportunity. 

The Energy Security Bill is focused on the medium- and long-term energy system, rather than immediate pressures on household bills, but is nevertheless vital. Its provisions include protections for people living in homes with distributed heating networks, the extension of the price cap beyond its current end date in 2023 and subsidy frameworks for the investment in new renewable technologies, including hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. This is another staging post in the shift to net zero.

These bold reforms will require careful handling in parliament. Many Tories want planning deregulation, not new design codes, fixed levies on housebuilding or compulsory rent auctions. Previous attempts to extend academisation when Nicky Morgan was education secretary floundered in the face of backbench opposition. And there is obviously a noisy lobby on the right resisting action to protect the environment. It says something that the government is prepared to make the argument that these are the right things to do and to use its majority to get them through. They should be applauded for doing so.

But a lot of what remains in the Queen’s Speech should be seen primarily as politics, rather than policy. Take, for example, the Public Order Bill, intended to prevent Extinction Rebellion activists from gluing themselves to asphalt and inconveniencing the rest of us. It has, predictably, prompted outcries from civil liberties groups that the government is “criminalising the right to protest,” and has been decried by Labour MPs as an attempt to “suppress dissent.” A more powerful criticism might be that it represents misplaced priorities, at a time when fear of crime is rising, antisocial behaviour is commonplace and nine out of 10 burglars are going unpunished.

Or, to take another example, the Future of Broadcasting Bill, which will privatise Channel 4 four decades after it was established by Margaret Thatcher and potentially lay the foundations for a successor to the BBC’s licence fee. This is not an issue that routinely comes up on the doorstep, nor is it likely to unlock productivity growth and boost real wages. There are justifications for it, not least the potential to generate billions in revenue to support creative industries, but it is a curious use of limited parliamentary time right now. 

The government’s strategy relies on creating a wedge with the opposition, in the hope of reaping dividends come election time. Labour will almost certainly vote against these bills and the attack ads will write themselves. But the pursuit of short-term political wins over important structural reform carries its own risks. The absence of long-trailed reforms to employment law, corporate governance and pensions auto-enrolment could come back to bite. If there is a repeat of the Carillion collapse, or if gig economy workers are hit particularly hard by a future recession, for example, ministers may wonder why they did not make use of their handsome majority to fix known problems when they had the chance.

Ultimately, however, it may not be what was announced in parliament yesterday but what was forecast by the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street last week which determines the Conservatives’ fortunes of the next election. The prospect of two years of spiralling inflation, a potential recession to curb it, and falling real wages when people are going to the ballot box does not bode well. We will have to wait for the chancellor’s next intervention to judge whether the government has a plan to deal with that.