Recent months have no doubt been difficult for the Prime Minister, with his longevity and suitability for the role being called into question, alongside disappointing local election results and an escalating cost-of-living crisis.
This week’s Queen’s speech, delivered by HRH The Prince of Wales on behalf of HM The Queen, set out the Government’s ambitions to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, cut red tape and promote competition. It included 38 Bills – some old, others new, in a bid to re-set the Government’s narrative.
Cost of living may be at the heart of Government thinking but there was nothing on it of any substance in the Queen’s Speech
Cost of living is being considered through every policy decision, with Prince Charles telling Parliament “Her Majesty’s government’s priority is to grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families”.
To tackle rising energy prices, the Energy Security Bill was announced, which will aim to protect households from surging prices by reducing the UK’s reliance on foreign imports, made more pressing by the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russia. The Government will also extend the Ofgem energy price cap to prevent suppliers from overcharging customers, but there were no new initiatives announced on tackling rising energy bill costs. This is a risky strategy for the Government. Can they really afford to wait several months until the Autumn Budget before deciding whether to give struggling families further support in helping to heat their homes?
The most significant exclusion from the Speech was the Employment Bill. In the face of the cost-of-living crisis, this might be considered a misstep by the Government and criticism is already forthcoming from many unions because of a lack of workers’ rights around flexible working, fair tips and protection from gender-based discrimination.
The opposition were clear in their condemnation of Government, with Labour leader, Keir Starmer saying ‘times are harder than they need to be’ as a result of Conservative failure to tackle this crisis in the midst of rising costs, inflation and a mixed economic outlook, while the Joseph Rowntree Foundation called the lack of new support measures “deeply worrying for families on low incomes”.
No 10 and Treasury aren’t on the same page
Some Conservative MPs were quick to point out that this was not a Budget, and that we are certain to see further economic support in the Autumn, and perhaps even earlier, indicating a possible emergency Budget. The Prime Minister also said he and the Chancellor will be “saying more about this in the days to come”.
It is clear that Treasury officials has vetoed any idea of immediate intervention to tackle the cost of living suggesting No 10 and the Treasury aren’t quite on the same page yet, further highlighting the growing tensions between both.
More localised planning is on the horizon
Whilst the new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill includes many of the policies trailed in the Government’s flagship Levelling Up White Paper, it will include plans such as giving people the right to vote on proposed extensions to properties in their area, scrapping previous plans to make it harder to block development. The Secretary of State Michael Gove is also expected to confirm that legally-binding housing targets are being scrapped. This suggests a move away from wholesale planning reform.
Several Conservative MPs have been concerned that the status-quo had cost them votes, particularly in the Blue Wall, including the loss of the Chesham and Amersham by-election last year – and will now breathe a sigh of relief at this change in direction.
One aspect of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which will have broad support is the ability of local councils to grant licences for venues to spill out onto pavements for outdoor seating areas, building on from temporary licences granted during the pandemic. Al fresco dining is here to stay. A small change within the bigger picture but a populist one which will have many voters raising a glass this summer.
The rights of tenants will be strengthened
Radical reform of the private rental sector was announced, which has long been called for and a White Paper is expected shortly. The Renters Reform Bill was introduced, which seeks to overturn section 21, which allows landlords to evict tenants without reason, and with just eight weeks’ notice. The Bill also introduces a new Ombudsman for private landlords.
Additionally, a Social Housing Regulation Bill was introduced and seeks to increase the rights of social housing tenants’ rights to better homes and enhance their ability to better hold their landlords to account. It will also implement tenant satisfaction measures which allows tenants to measure their landlord’s performance.
Red Tape will continue to be cut
Unveiling the Brexit Freedoms Bill, Prince Charles said “Her Majesty’s Government will continue to seize the opportunities of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, to support economic growth”. The Brexit Freedoms Bill will see a ‘bonfire’ of European laws, facilitating the removal of EU regulations retained after Brexit.
The Government is also introducing a Procurement Bill to bring the Civil Service to heel on adhering to Government objectives and enable small companies to bid for contracts – and at the same time will legislate on privatising Channel 4 later in the year, a move which is still causing angst within the industry.
The Prime Minister only has two years to “turbo charge”
With a general election likely in May 2024, the Prime Minister only has two years to deliver on his promises. He has vowed to “turbo charge” the economy to ease the cost-of-living crisis, and this year’s legislative agenda unsurprisingly feels like it contains more Bills than usual.
Keir Starmer was clear that the Speech was “thin” and “bereft of ideas or purpose, without guiding principle, or a roadmap for delivery”. He said we need a government of the moment that meets the moment, and that this government is far from that, out of touch to meet the challenges of the moment, and too tired to meet the challenges of the future.
Whilst the Queen’s Speech offers the Prime Minister and the Government an opportunity to reset the post-Covid agenda, with a return to many of the manifesto themes that won them a significant majority in December 2019, there isn’t anything especially radical in the legislative agenda. The Queen’s Speech did not contain many surprises or ‘rabbits out of the hat’, and it feels unclear how impactful many of these Bills will be when it comes to tackling the cost-of-living crisis.
While it is laudable that the Government is taking a long-term view on creating growth, this needs to be dovetailed with short-term bold measures to ease the pain for people, some of whom are simply struggling to pay their monthly bills and put a meal on the table. For a Prime Minister fond of a soundbite and a good headline, there is an obvious opportunity to announce some populist measures in the coming weeks to help get his Government back on track and start laying the foundations for the next General Election. Interesting times ahead.
With a lot to unpack following the local elections and Queen’s Speech, Cavendish Advocacy has organised an in-conversation webinar with Lord Barwell, former Minister of State for Housing and Chief of Staff to Prime Minister, Theresa May on Thursday 12th May at 11:30am. We will discuss with Lord Barwell what has happened, what’s next for Government and where he thinks Government should be channelling its energy. Everyone is welcome, and to register your attendance, please sign up below.