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It stretched to more than 1,000 words, contained 25 new bills and will take up nearly a week of parliamentary debate. But Boris Johnson’s second Queen’s Speech was so underwhelming that it had more than a whiff of John Major’s “cones hotline” about it.
Most striking was what was not in it, as much as what was. Social care was conspicuous by its absence, with only a lame line that “proposals on social care reform will be brought forward” in the coming year. Proposals, not legislation. That will have to wait for 2022 at the earliest. Keir Starmer rightly ridiculed the PM’s claim/outright lie in 2019 that there was “a clear plan we have prepared”.
Other sins of omission were the lack of the promised post-Brexit employment bill, legislation on Northern Ireland veterans, help for renters, repeal of the Vagrancy Act and better protection for leaseholders hit by the cladding scandal. Some omissions were tactical, like the decision to step back from putting anti-obesity calorie labels on pints of beer (though they will go on menus).
Missing in action too was any comprehensive package of policies for “levelling up” (even though Her Majesty had to utter the PM’s 2019 catchphrase). It will be nearly two years after Johnson’s election victory before we get to see the White Paper on levelling up, later this year. Who knows what concrete legislation, if any, that will produce by the time of the next Queen’s Speech.
The pandemic has obviously got in the way, but this is a government that told us it had “bandwidth” to cope with the virus and deliver a Brexit trade deal last year. And even before the pandemic hit, it seems little was done. As former No.10 adviser Tim Montgomerie told me today “the post-election internal conversations on levelling up – rare as they were – were vacuous”. “It was definitely a case of trying to convert a soundbite that tested well in focus groups into something real,” he said.
Queen Mary politics professor Tim Bale spotted straight away that the Queen actually said “my government will level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom”. Opportunities are not the same as outcomes, which are easier to measure. Rachel Wolf, who helped draft the Tory manifesto, yesterday set out a potential set of tests on skills and schools, crime and high streets, but so far no minister has matched that kind of detailed thinking.
There’s a strong case that even small changes in productivity in the north and midlands could lead to big changes in income and opportunity. Former Bank of England economist Andy Haldane made that case in 2016, with his “red car, blue car” speech (ironically, the place Redcar is indeed now “Bluecar” thanks to its Tory MP). Yet it will need a lot more than a lifetime skills loan to crack that productivity challenge.
The thinness of the Queen’s Speech could suggest that Johnson is not panicking about this parliament and is patiently planning for two terms. After all, I remember being in Telford for the Tory manifesto launch and being struck by the PM stressing just what a 10-year programme it was. One significant new bill is the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, allowing him to call an election when he pleases.
And for all the criticism he would get for not completing his promises, going for an early election in 2023 looks tempting, especially when delay risks an economic downturn. When Matt Hancock said on the Today programme that the government has already “delivered” on getting Brexit done, rolling out the vaccine and protecting the NHS, it felt like an election poster. If the 50,000 more nurses and 20,000 more cops targets can be hit by 2023, it could be game on.
But perhaps the strongest reason to think we may be going to the polls earlier than 2024 came in the Queen’s Speech debate rather than the Queen’s Speech. Almost as an aside, the PM told Ed Davey that a Covid inquiry would start “within this session” of parliament. That means within a year. Given such an inquiry will last well over a year itself, Johnson could hold an election before any damning final verdict emerges.
Just before the last election, David Cameron joked about Johnson: “The thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.” Don’t put it past the PM to wriggle free once more, this time from the Covid reckoning, while convincing the public to give him one more chance to deliver the “change” he promised them.