Rishi Sunak is running out of time to shake things up. Today’s King’s Speech was many things — sometimes sensible, occasionally interesting, and often just bizarre — but it was not game-changing.
In the legislative programme for the coming year read out by King Charles this morning, there were plans to eradicate smoking (worthy), new rules to encourage driverless transport and make it easier for leaseholders to buy out their freeholder (interesting), as well as proposed new restrictions to tackle the “scourge of pedicabs” (bizarre). There was the occasional nod to raw politics: new oil and gas licences in the North Sea and longer sentences for violent criminals, though neither exactly amount to a radical break from what already exists. On top of this, there were proposals already trailed at the party conference in Manchester such as “Network North” and Sunak’s determination to reform the education system again.
Taken together, the package of measures is, at best, mildly curious. Pulling the camera back, it’s possible to detect a strategy of sorts, trying to mend the Tory Party’s image for chaotic profligacy under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss by offering voters an old-school pragmatic conservatism: moderate in general but tough on crime, sensible with the economy and willing to prioritise the national interest over global concerns like Net Zero. For the Conservative Party’s critics, of course, such a programme is automatically deemed “populist”, but in reality it barely meets this description — in large part because it really isn’t that interesting.
Sunak is entrusting the Bank of England to bring inflation under control, and has increased taxes. In the grand scheme of things, his watering down of his predecessors’ Net Zero plans is mild, tinkering at the edges of a policy to which he remains committed. Almost all governments end up promising to lock up the most violent criminals for longer.
Today’s King’s Speech reminded me of Sunak’s party conference speech in October: all a bit, well, meh. Unable to do much about the overall economic environment, he is left to pursue pet issues: smoking, tech regulation, poor education standards. Perhaps these will be Sunak’s lasting legacies, legislation with outsized impacts — today’s version of the seatbelt law or the creation of the National Lottery. Even so, they’re unlikely to do anything for his chances of winning the next election.
To stand any chance of beating Labour at the ballot box, Sunak first needs living standards to start improving — and consistently so. But he also needs to present a coherent vision of how this will continue under his premiership and to provide at least some kind of downpayment so that people can believe it.
After today, the Prime Minister has at most one more King’s Speech in him before the next general election; one more party conference; one more budget. He needs to do a lot more with each opportunity than he has so far.