Every year or so, MPs and Lords gather in the upper chamber to hear an address from the monarch who, fitted in ceremonial robes and adorned with the imperial state crown, delivers deadpan, bullet-point by bullet-point, the government’s forthcoming legislative agenda.
But do not let the pomp and ceremony fool you, this is an intensely political affair. And the address delivered by King Charles today — the first King’s Speech since 1950 — was more significant than most. For this was not only Charles III’s first “Speech from the Throne”, but Rishi Sunak’s too.
There was, therefore, a great deal of pressure on the prime minister to perform in policy terms today as he prepared to seize the reins of parliament. But more than this: today’s King’s Speech had long been touted as the second-third of Sunak’s totemic “reset” as PM. With the first having been delivered to mixed success at Conservative Party Conference in October, and the third still to come by way of the Autumn Statement on 22 November — this really had to land.
What is more, this is also widely expected to be the last King’s Speech before a general election; and with a historic routing looming (if the polls are anything to go by), today’s events offered the PM an irresistible opportunity to set out clear differences with Labour. But Rishi Sunak, speaking vicariously through His Majesty, was addressing Conservative MPs too: he needed to convince them he’s got a plan to turn things around in the remaining months of this parliament.
There was also the far from ideal backdrop to the speech today which revolved around Suella Braverman’s purported plan to prevent charities from giving out tents to homeless people. The home secretary appeared to confirm the Financial Times’ scoop on Saturday, in a move which sparked a fresh round of intra-party scuffling: two days in a row two senior cabinet ministers in Alex Chalk, the justice secretary, and Claire Coutinho, the energy security and net zero secretary, refused to defend their colleague’s comments.
In a way, this noisy backdrop was a microcosm of Rishi Sunak’s party-political travails since he took over as prime minister in October last year. Yesterday, he was in North Norfolk to trail plans on introducing regular annual oil and gas licensing. But headlines were dominated by a further round of Conservative Party infighting, as MPs — frontbench and backbench — took turns disowning the home secretary’s comments.
So this was the immediate, brutal reality into which King Charles’ speech was received today. What, therefore, did the prime minister have in store? And is the news agenda now his alone to tyrannise and manipulate?
Ostensibly, we have twenty-one bills which the government says will be its priority over the coming year or so. But there is not anything especially surprising among them.
The headline pitch of the King’s Speech, in this way, was no different to that which Sunak has majored on for some time now as PM: he wants to embrace dividing lines with Labour and push Keir Starmer into political territory upon which he thinks he can fight and win the next election.
As for the government’s new energy proposals, the policy rationale behind the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill is to make the UK more energy independent by increasing investor and industry confidence with regular annual oil and gas licensing. The government has repeatedly insisted that the its focus is on ensuring that the UK reaches net zero without unduly burdening families and businesses; of course, this announcement follows the PM’s recent decision to push back the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 and relax the phaseout target for the installation of new gas boilers.
But purported policy triumphs aside, the bill saw King Charles — who has spent a lifetime warning about climate change — formally announcing the prime minister’s highly-politicised pledge to grant new North Sea oil and gas exploration licenses.
The prime minister has previously accused Keir Starmer of letting “ecozealots” at Just Stop Oil write his energy policy; elsewhere, he has declared that Labour‘s proposal to ban new oil and gas developments in the North Sea is “bizarre” and will only benefit Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill is Sunak showing what Labour is giving up on with its alleged zealousness.
So Sunak thinks there’s mileage in lampooning Labour as out-of-touch on energy security and net zero. Such a strategy is intended to pose a danger to Starmer who, tetchy and cautious, has not always proved willing to embrace Sunak’s set dividing lines.
But although Starmer can credibly be characterised as deeply — almost instinctively — opposed to taking political risks, in recent weeks and months he has seen fit to expand Labour’s policy offering in recent months and enlarge his “small target”. Energy policy and net zero ambition feature centrally in his pitch.
Keir Starmer has said that if his party wins power it will honour existing licences — but he has ruled out granting any new ones. Instead, the party has said it will prioritise significant investment in nuclear and renewable energy sources.
Populistic crime and punishment laws featured, too, among Sunak’s more politically charged announcements. King Charles announced a new bill which seeks to see fewer offenders receiving short-term prison sentences, with low-risk individuals instead receiving community orders. Critics will accuse the government of posturing amid reports that some judges have been told not to jail criminals because prisons are full. Elsewhere, the criminal justice bill pledges to “reform the criminal justice system and give the police the powers necessary to keep people safe”.
There were also long-trailed plans to phase out all legal tobacco sales in England, the proposal to introduce a new football regulator, a programme to reform leasehold property ownership and, even, a Pedicabs (London) Bill “to deal with the scourge of unlicensed pedicabs”.
The prime minister also wants to position the UK as ready to take advantage of the benefits of AI — hence the section on new legal frameworks to support the development of self-driving vehicles.
What, then, is the strategy here?
Sunak has said his government is focussed on “long term decisions” — and that remains the throughline of the vast majority of bills the King Charles announced today.
“By taking these long term decisions, my government will change this country and build a better future”, King Charles concluded this morning. And that, in essence, is the message the PM wants voters to take away from his speech. But a question remains on whether this really works as the rhetorical glue Sunak needs to cement a general election campaign together.
The prime minister will also need to make progress quickly on the bills announced today to persuade the public that he — as leader of the Conservative Party which has governed the country for 13 years — is the vehicle for real change in politics.
But this raises another dilemma: Sunak will likely be able to pass his 21 bills, or at least get Westminster and Whitehall moving on them, long before a general election campaign begins — so how long can the PM maintain this image as a “change candidate” through 2024?
If he is able to act on his immediate priorities over the coming months, should we expect another “relaunch” which identifies further policy areas ripe for change down the line?
Does this make the prospect of an early election more likely? Or will pre-election messaging on “change” transpose into a “Britain’s on the right track” ticket down the line — as the PM cites success on the areas he has identified?
These are longer term considerations, and will not feature in the immediate political fallout of King Charles’ speech today. In the short term, therefore, one must ask whether today’s events have done anything to combat the perception that Sunak is out of control of his party, that he helms a “zombie parliament” and that he is merely minding the shop before Keir Starmer sweeps into No 10 with a large majority.
All this will remain contested over the coming days and weeks as the government adds further rhetorical dressing to its proposals. But what is certain is that the Labour Party’s spinning operation is already working overtime to rubbish the proposals as “thin gruel”. Chris Bryant, the shadow minister for creative industries and digital, argued this afternoon the government could get this legislative programme through parliament in a matter of months, even weeks.
So with perhaps a year or more to go until a general election, there remains a great deal to be decided and arguments to be made. But the “real Rishi” has, in theory, been unleashed. Attention now turns to whether he can inspire a revival in his party’s electoral prospects after over a year of false-starts.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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