Sunak’s latest re-launch – the King’s Speech
Rishi Sunak faces one huge headache – the Tory party is lagging badly in the polls and to date everything the Prime Minister has tried has failed to make a dent in Labour’s lead. Since the summer, Sunak has deployed a ‘Bazball’ policy blitz which saw a watering down of net zero commitments, taking an unashamedly pro-car stance and dumping HS2 Phase II from Birmingham to Manchester. He also tried to use his party’s conference in Manchester to regain the initiative.
Yet, despite all this, Labour maintain a comfortable double-digit lead in the polls and the Tories have suffered crushing by-election defeats in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth. All eyes are now turning to the King’s Speech on 7 November as the latest attempt by Sunak to present a fresh ‘change’ agenda.
Sunak is under pressure on a number of fronts – not only from Labour but also from his own side. Some in his ranks are clamouring for pre-election tax cuts, but the nation’s finances remain tight and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, no doubt haunted by Liz Truss’s mini-budget, will be keen to avoid spooking the markets. Then there are some pushing hard for further watering down of environmental policies and creating dividing lines with Labour over so-called ‘culture war’ issues.
Others are pushing hard for a response to Labour grabbing the ‘get Britain building agenda’, urging the Tories to adopt a stronger focus on getting shovels in the ground on new homes and key infrastructure. Yet there is a tension as another wing of the Tory party, mindful of how many seats are vulnerable in the suburbs and the Green Belt, will be desperate for Sunak to resist this pressure.
Squaring the circle
So through all the pomp and pageantry of this great state occasion, what should we expect to be in the first King’s Speech for over 70 years? What will be the government’s legislative priorities for the remainder of this parliament?
In presenting the contents of the speech to his cabinet, Sunak reportedly said the aim is “to grow the economy, to strengthen society and to keep people safe”. Yet he has little room for manoeuvre. Any headroom in the nation’s finances needs to be saved for tax cuts closer to polling day (which could be as late as January 2025), so any eye-catching, vote-winning announcements in the King’s Speech have to be cheap.
By being so late in the parliament, the chances are that there is insufficient time left for all the new bills announced on 7 November to become law before the General Election. Instead, expect commitments to new legislation to be included solely for political reasons – the government know full well it’s unlikely they’ll all make it to the statute, but instead the contents are about PR and providing handy political traps for Labour.
Where’s the beef?
What exactly should we expect to hear? First, there’ll be those bills carried over from the last session as time ran out before they’d completed their full parliamentary progress. There are likely to be seven such pieces of legislation, most notably including the Renters (Reform) Bill, which has already caused the Government some difficulty with their own backbenchers and is likely to continue to do so.
Second, they’ll be new legislation, which are likely to include the following:
- ‘Tough on crime’ – a focus on public safety, but without the funding to do much on policing or prisons, so watch out for commitments on tougher sentencing and compelling criminals to be in court to hear their sentencing.
- ‘Pro motorist’ – enshrining in law some of the already unveiled policies making it harder to bring in 20mph zones and ULEZ-style schemes. Likely to also (finally) include regulation of pedicabs, something with strong London cross-party support.
- ‘Cancelling HS2 dividend’ – looking to put into law the list of schemes being funded with the money freed up from cancelled HS2 Phase II, and daring Labour to oppose.
- ‘Doubling down on anti-green’ – reports are Sunak will double down on anti-green policies and advance the exploration of North Sea oil and gas.
- ‘Leasehold reform’ – Michael Gove is reported to have won the internal battle to bring forward a bill to reform leasehold, albeit it is unclear how radical this will be given the opposition it may face and the lack of time left to legislate.
- ‘Martyn’s Law’ - It seems likely that a draft bill will be published on a new duty on venues to take steps to improve public safety in the face of the threat from terrorism – named after Martyn Hett, one of the victims of the Manchester terror attacks.
There looks little in the way of more radical planning reform to respond to Labour’s agenda on building new homes and infrastructure. Plans to legislate to dump nutrient neutrality rules appear to have been abandoned.
The challenge for Sunak is just how much the Government is now really able to set the agenda. The problem for the Tories is that Labour, emboldened by Starmer’s reshuffle and a strong party conference season and clearly learning their lessons from the aftermath of the Uxbridge by-election, show signs of not being blown off course by what the Government does or says. Instead, Labour is sticking to its strategy and talking about the issues it wants to talk about, rising above the fray, albeit they’re currently facing internal difficulty over their response to events in the Middle East.
But, if Labour’s popularity continues, then regardless of how much the Government tries to set traps, talk about their legislative agenda, the public either don’t notice or aren’t interested. With the Autumn Statement due on 22 November, and a possible major reshuffle before Christmas, the Government does have further opportunities to try to wrestle back the initiative as we move into 2024 and the probability of a general election later in the year. The final months of 2023 promise to be a busy time for politics.
We will of course report back on the contents of the King’s Speech next week.
 Data Protection and Digital Information (No 2) Bill, Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, Victims and Prisoners Bill, High Speed Rail (Crewe – Manchester) Bill, Holocaust Memorial Bill and Renters Reform Bill.