The Queen arrived without crown or carriage at Westminster today (11 May) for the State Opening of Parliament. After a strong performance in last week’s local elections, the Prime Minister will hope the day’s announcements will help cement Conservative support in the so-called Red Wall and restart the legislative plan that was halted by the pandemic.
What was in the Queen’s Speech, and what does it tell us about the government’s current thinking?
Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda was a central theme. Thus far, nearly 18 months into a parliamentary term that has been dominated by the Covid crisis, levelling up has largely meant funds for local infrastructure projects, which have been marred by accusations of pork-barrel politics. But as Covid-19 retreats from the forefront of British politics, the government knows it needs to repay its new voters, such as those in Hartlepool, with substantive policies.
Commitments to the next stage of High Speed Rail, expanding internet access, freeports and new planning rules all appeared in the speech. And in addition to infrastructure pledges, education and skills were also a central feature, with proposals to fulfil the government’s promise of a “lifetime skills guarantee” through a flexible loan system, aiming to provide more opportunities to those who didn’t go to university.
However, a bill to reform the social care sector was noticeably absent; on becoming Prime Minister, Johnson promised to fix social care, saying he had a “clear plan”. Nearly two years on, that plan is yet to materialise.
In addition to levelling up, major changes to the way elections and politics are conducted in the UK were announced. As promised in the manifesto, the government proposed a requirement for voter ID at elections. This comes despite the fact that, in 2015, the Electoral Commission said 3.5 million electors did not have an appropriate form of ID such as a driving licence, while voter fraud is extremely rare. In 2017, one person was convicted for voter personation, and the following year no one was convicted or cautioned for the offence. This has raised concerns that the new requirement may be motivated more by the opportunity to secure an advantage in elections than to secure electoral fairness.
The government also promised to “restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts” – a euphemism for increasing the power of the executive at the expense of the other branches of government. The Conservatives’ manifesto promise to scrap the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which would reduce parliament’s control over when elections take place and return that right to the prime minister, was included in the speech, as was a bill that would examine judicial review – the power of the courts to review government action. The Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, which was promised in 2019, has yet to begin, but expect the constitution and related issues to be a focus point over the coming year.
A higher education bill was announced, which would address the perceived threat to freedom of speech at universities. At the same time, the government will reintroduce the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that ignited anger earlier this year, following the police response to the Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham Common, London. The extensive bill increases the power of police to place restrictions on protests.
New bills on animal welfare, banning conversion therapy and greater support for veterans of the armed forces were also included in the speech.
As the pandemic recedes, the Queen’s Speech suggests the government is anxious to implement the policies it promised in 2019. This makes sense: the legislation passed this year will be pivotal to the success of the Conservatives’ campaign in the next general election. But with a year lost to the pandemic, and a potential 2023 election to look to, the Prime Minister knows he will need to move quickly.