A Queen’s Speech lacking in direction

Winston Churchill once reputedly pushed back a dessert with the words “take away that pudding – it has no theme”. Much the same could be said about this year’s Queen’s Speech. It contained more than three dozen Bills, each justified by ministers on its own merits, but detecting an overarching narrative is not easy.

The main aim of the Government is said to be “levelling up” the country and there is a Bill “to drive local growth, empowering local leaders to regenerate their areas, and ensuring everyone can share in the United Kingdom’s success”.

These are laudable ambitions, but local powers often clash with national government intentions. The policy is principally directed at shoring up the Conservative vote in the so-called red wall seats that were for many years Labour but switched at the 2019 general election. There were signs in last week’s local contests that Tory support is already waning in these areas but it is also on the decline in the South, where the Lib Dems have been picking up votes from disgruntled Conservatives.

This may all be a mid-term blip and no cause for panic in the Government’s ranks. But as the Prime Minister has intimated, there is not that much time to rectify matters. This is essentially the programme on which he expects to be judged at the general election due at the end of 2024, at the latest.

By then, there is little chance that “levelling up” will have been achieved and, indeed, ministers might be better advised to emphasise the long-term nature of this agenda – that it is a marathon not a sprint. Reversing decades of regional imbalance is not a task for a single parliament.

Appealing to disparate electoral interests is never easy and risks falling between two stools, pleasing no one. Boris Johnson seeks to appear economically on the centre-Left, with taxes going up to fund the NHS, care and welfare, while being socially on the Right, with tougher immigration and crime policies.

There were 38 Bills in the Queen’s Speech, ranging from a new Bill of Rights to underpin free speech and stop abuses of the judicial process to a Social Housing Regulation Bill intended to eradicate “the poor treatment of tenants by some landlords”.

These two measures are emblematic of the difficulties in discerning a coherent political approach. The former is Conservative, emphasising responsibilities as well as rights; the latter is one more likely to be seen in a Labour programme, seeking “a fair and just housing system” with all the perverse consequences that is likely to bring about.

The Energy Security Bill is a key measure given the impact of high gas prices brought about by the war in Ukraine. It extends the price cap on domestic consumption introduced by Theresa May’s government but initially proposed by Labour and denounced by the Conservatives as a dangerous interference in the market.

The consequences were apparent with the recent sudden lurch in prices as the cap was adjusted to allow suppliers to increase tariffs to account for rising wholesale costs. Another shock is inevitable in the autumn, when the cap is increased again. Labour has demanded more help with energy bills, paid for by a windfall tax on the profits made by the oil and gas companies. Will Mr Johnson continue to resist what would be a disastrous, though doubtless popular, move? The Government should be removing subsidies, restoring market competition, increasing the domestic supply of oil and gas, and setting out its plans to expand nuclear power production, which received barely a mention in the Queen’s Speech.

In the end, this Government will be judged on the economy, as all are. The cost of living crunch is set to get far worse in the coming months. With inflation rising into double figures for the first time since the 1980s, the outlook is grim.

It is risible for Labour to claim that it would do any better, since it would attack wealth creation with gusto. Moreover, Sir Keir Starmer’s forecast of “stagflation” comes from the leader of a party that last presided over such a phenomenon in the 1970s.

Sir Keir said that the Government had run out of ideas and, after 12 years in office, the Conservatives are in need of an injection of confidence and a sense of direction. Has this Queen’s Speech provided it?

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