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Why the King’s Speech failed to shift the narrative

Opportunities for Rishi Sunak to show he can be a change candidate are thundering past.

By Freddie Hayward

The King didn’t look pleased to announce the government’s programme at his first King’s Speech yesterday. (I wrote about why here.) After the King was shunted back to the palace, the politics began. The House of Commons has now embarked on a six-day debate on the 21 bills contained in the speech.

It will not be remembered as the start of the Conservatives’ 2024 election comeback. Rishi Sunak’s performance in the House of Commons was lacklustre. He seemed unable even to convince himself. The Prime Minister failed to turn the package into a clear diagnosis of the country’s problems, let alone a remedy. Nor did he offer an argument as to why the government, rather than the opposition, was best-placed to deliver its priorities. He is struggling to impose coherence on his time in office. I suspect I will be left with the same conclusion after Jeremy Hunt delivers the Autumn Statement two weeks from now. Opportunities to shift the narrative with set-piece events are thundering past, piling pressure on the short campaign and the next manifesto to close the polling deficit.

So what was in the speech? The automated vehicles bill implements the Law Commission’s review on driverless cars. The leasehold bill makes it easier for leaseholders to buy their freehold. Levelling up has been reduced to the creation of a football regulator. New laws to protect public service provision during strikes is being heralded as the saviour of this Christmas. The sentencing bill enshrines a presumption for short prison sentences (a response, most probably, to there being only 557 spaces left in the prison estate), while putting murderers away for proper life sentences. This King’s Speech was supposed to put Labour on the backfoot and, yes, voters think serious criminals should be banged up for longer. But Labour has been anxious to appear tough on crime itself – calling for harsher sentences and more police. In any case, why draw attention to a criminal justice system that has the highest number of people waiting for a trial in 50 years? To top it off, a crackdown on London pedicabs?

You don’t need to dismiss the policy implications of these bills to question how they make it more likely that the Conservatives will win the next election. The announced legislation merely hinted at the problems facing the country: low growth, low investment, international insecurity, distrust in institutions, illegal migration. Proposals on the economy – the issue that dominates voters’ priorities – were administrative, not systemic. Sunak’s hopes for economic growth are hemmed in by his backbenchers’ demands for lower taxes on one side and his fiscal conservatism on the other. His critique of Labour’s plan for green investment rarely goes beyond the accusation that it requires borrowing. He does not seem to have an alternative. Ceding such ground to Labour will bungle No 10’s plans to paint Sunak as the change candidate.

In his conference speech, Sunak spoke about moving beyond the short-termism that has defined politics over the past 30 years. He promised to be the man to break that consensus. There was little yesterday to substantiate that claim.

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[See also: Will more Labour frontbenchers follow Imran Hussain and resign?]

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