The most striking point about the legislative programme the government set out in the Queen’s Speech was its scale. In sheer number, this is more than it reasonably could be expected to deliver even if many bills were not controversial – and they will be. For those reasons, it reads like a manifesto aimed at the party base more than a realistic programme.
It also cannot – inevitably, in a wish list of legislation – deal with the country’s greatest immediate problems of cost of living and inflation. The government was right to name these problems at the start of the speech but may have then raised expectations in its rhetoric it will not fulfil. Those problems will have to be tackled through the next budget more than new laws, although there is a limit to what any government can do to help (and this programme made clear the government’s unwillingness to pour money on problems). Nor, though, was the patchwork of measures on health, education and police or on ‘levelling up’ adequate to the challenge of helping the country recover from Covid and restore growth.
At most two years from an election, this programme’s greatest asset was its coherence of tone and philosophy. But it was underwhelming in its answer to deep national problems and overwhelming to the point of losing credibility in what it professes the government will try to do.
The Queen’s Speech included 38 bills. This is a vast number for a supposed one-year programme. In 2017, in the wake of the Brexit referendum and for a programme explicitly billed as covering two years, the Queen’s Speech proposed fewer than 30. Four of these are brought forward from the current session, the government having failed to get them passed. There are many controversial points in the list. Rights of protesters and measures to curb them (dropped out of the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill to get that passed) are here again. The privatisation of Channel 4, deeply controversial among Conservative MPs, is here too. So is – although there is little detail so far on what it means – a proposed Bill of Rights from Dominic Raab, the justice secretary. As is the ban on aspects of conversion therapy on which there has been so much back and forth.
Together with proposals to cut European Union ‘red tape’, these measures have a strong flavour of being designed to appeal to the party base. Even so, and despite the government’s 75-seat majority, these may prove difficult to get through.
Legislation is not the first tool a government might reach for in tackling the effect of huge shocks and entrenched problems of an economic nature. But the proposals which the government claims address these problems do not always do so.
A promise to “strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living” raised expectations which were not matched by substantial policies. These will have to wait for the chancellor’s next intervention – which could well be at short notice. The flagship levelling up agenda was mentioned early on in the speech, but there was little new of substance to help reduce regional inequality.
Plans to meet the post-Covid recovery challenge are also patchy, with the Queen’s Speech largely reheating previous announcements on additional funding to the NHS and reform of social care. The funding is substantial, but NHS waiting lists will remain at record levels for a considerable period of time.
There is a contradiction – a constitutionally important one – embedded in the speech. On one hand, the government talks about giving parliament powers to scrutinise bills more closely. On the other, it aims to give ministers more powers to circumvent parliament. This is a point on which parliamentarians – including many Conservative MPs – want reassurance. The speech is less than reassuring on this point.