One of any government’s key aims is to deliver a series of reforms that convinces voters to re-elect them at the next general election. The pandemic may have constrained Boris Johnson’s legislative programme but, with an election perhaps only one or two years away, the Prime Minister and his team are under pressure to deliver. The Conservatives’ poor performance in last week’s local elections only makes that problem more acute.
When the current administration put together today’s Queen’s Speech (10 May), that challenge will no doubt have been a central consideration. The speech sets out the government’s legislative agenda for this parliamentary session. In total 38 bills were proposed, with the focus on capitalising on Brexit and finally adding some meat to the bones of the levelling-up agenda.
On Brexit, the government promised a Brexit Freedoms Bill that will seek to make it easier to remove large swathes of residual EU law from the statute books. Similarly, the Financial Services and Markets Bill will cut regulation in the financial sector. At last, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, will have something to focus on beyond empty offices in Whitehall. While the content of the bills remains opaque, many of the topics given high priority seem to be aimed at placating those disgruntled Tory MPs on the right of the party.
On levelling up, the government will be feeling the pressure. This policy morphed out of a slogan from the 2019 Conservative election campaign, the exact meaning of which has remained obscure. Very little has actually been achieved so far, making it unlikely that real results will be seen by the next election – rebalancing decades of entrenched regional inequality is difficult to achieve in such a timescale.
Nonetheless, there were attempts made today. Devolution is a relatively quick way of moving power away from Westminster, and the government announced a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that will accelerate the process of decentralisation through a new model of combined authority. Meanwhile, a Transport Bill will create a new body – Great British Railways – to oversee rail transport in Britain and expand the role of the private sector through new passenger service contracts.
This Queen’s Speech was an attempt to deliver on the promises that Johnson made in 2019, but there was little to address the most pressing issue in the current political landscape: the cost of living. Fears of a recession are growing, with inflation set to reach 10 per cent this year and energy markets remaining roiled. The government needs something to take to the electorate at the next election. With people’s energy bills set to increase again in the autumn, stripping back regulation for the City might not cut it.