It was more than 900 words long and included 38 bills, yet somehow this Queen’s Speech feels very much less than the sum of its parts. The danger is that it won’t so much “reset” Boris Johnson’s government as reset the Groundhog Day clock for the same formula of overpromising and underdelivering.
Right at the beginning, there were grand words about plans to “grow and strengthen the economy” and “help ease the cost of living”. There was rhetoric about levelling up and helping the NHS recover from the pandemic. But on each, there was thin gruel and only the promise of more jam tomorrow.
The speech did include important new legislation with the potential to have a long-term impact on our daily lives. The Energy Bill could continue the shift away from fossil fuels, the transport bill is a part re-nationalisation of the railways that rolls back John Major’s ill-fated privatisation.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will at least make a stab at tackling the problem of blighted high streets. Modernisation of the Mental Health Act, the Seafarers bill (to deter future P&O-style sackings) and updating the Official Secrets Act are likely to be welcomed by many.
Yet overall the speech struggled to paper over the cracks that last week’s local elections laid bare in the Johnson voter coalition that got him elected in 2019.
Liberal conservatives in the south may still recoil at “culture war” moves like Channel 4 privatisation, Rwanda deportations and freedom of speech rows on university campuses. Cash-strapped former Labour Leave voters in the midlands and north will want urgent action to cut bills rather than the promise of “al fresco dining” (something the Levelling Up Bill aims to achieve).
A speech that talks about “cutting taxes” just weeks after taking the UK to its highest tax burden for decades is not exactly straight dealing either. The tension within the Tory party over that issue is unresolved, as is the question of just how urgently the PM will act on the cost of living.
The one bill that isn’t mentioned but which does have to happen every year is a finance bill to enact the Budget. And with the Budget not until the autumn, Johnson’s own preface to the Queen’s Speech seemed to suggest we may have to wait until then for more help with bills. “Over the coming months we will continue examining what more we can do to ease the pressures”, he said. “Coming months” and “examining” don’t sound like the urgent action some MPs want.
Like many of the PM’s utterances, the Queen’s Speech feels like a plea for more time. There are lots of references to “2030” for targets to measure real change, paving the way for the Conservatives to say at the next election that they need another term to make it all a reality.
The public will cut the Government some slack over the pandemic, yet 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 piecemeal, underwhelming set of bills today – still aren’t.
For all the talk about helping the NHS, there is still a huge black hole of the lack of a workforce plan. Johnson talks today about record numbers of staff at a time when there is a record number of vacancies in the NHS and social care (100,000 each). There was nothing about how to get to that manifesto pledge of “a million” new homes. Childcare, social care (we are still at the White Paper stage) and workers’ rights (the post-Brexit Employment Bill delayed again) are all in a holding pattern.
Indeed, this felt less like a Queen’s Speech than a holding statement. The message to rebellious MPs was “hold your nerve, these are mid-term blues”, the message to the public was “hold your breath, help is coming later this year”, the message to Keir Starmer was “hold my beer”.
The wider problem is that Johnson always seems to be pleading for more time, aiming to just limp across the next deadline that secures his survival another week, another month or another year. The local elections, the Queen’s Speech, the Sue Gray report, summer by-elections, the summer recess, come and go but MPs and the public may conclude, in the immortal words of Theresa May, “nothing has changed” because the PM himself will never change.
That’s why one particular line caught the eye in the Government’s blurb that accompanied the speech. Referencing Ukraine, it said “the Government is providing the leadership needed in these challenging times”.
But just as Prince Charles’ delivery of the speech on his mother’s behalf made everyone think the unthinkable of life after the Queen, its contents may also prompt thoughts of life after Johnson. Unlike Her Majesty, the PM has been accused over the past year of both a moral vacuum and a leadership vacuum on standards in public life. A policy vacuum – on the cost of living in a slow-growth, high inflation economy – is perhaps even worse.