The King’s Speech: not a bang, but a whimperPeter Cardwell, Senior Counsel
The King had barely got back to Buckingham Palace before Rishi Sunak was being accused of blatant electioneering via the King’s Speech. The first, and probably last, King’s Speech of the Sunak administration was never going to have snazzy giveaways or rabbits produced from hats, not least because it comes just a few weeks before the Autumn Statement — which itself may be uneventful — and, as Liam Byrne so memorably put it, there is no money. The small amount of fiscal headroom Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has to play with may involve changes to tax in the Autumn Statement, but many of the policies King Charles announced today simply do not involve much public spending in the longer term.
Notable is the much-trailed focus on criminal justice. Much of it will be nodded through by Labour and is not particularly politically contentious. Extended criminal sentences, for example whole life terms for murders with a sexual or sadistic element, are not going to be widely opposed. When I was a special adviser in the Ministry of Justice, our announcement that the most serious criminals would serve not just half their sentences behind bars, but two thirds, was the most popular measure announced at that year’s Conservative Party Conference.
More controversial are oil and gas exploration — which in itself provides a significant political trap for Labour — and changes to housing legislation. The former, the King told us, would help “the country transition to Net Zero by 2050 without adding undue burdens on households.” The latter has been a long time coming, with measures such as the Leasehold and Freehold Bill, which will aim to reform the housing market by making it cheaper and easier for leaseholders to purchase their freehold, the government tells us.
Likewise, the long-term desire by many Conservatives to turn Generation Rent towards the party may see a boost, the Prime Minister hopes, with the Renters’ (Reform) Bill, which, we are told, will offer stronger security of tenure and better value for tenants. Landlords are also promised certainty they can regain their properties when needed. We’ll see.
But how much of the legislative programme announced today that actually gets enacted is, somewhat ironically, in the hands of Rishi Sunak, the man who signed off the speech in the first place. The timing of an election is crucial.
So even though MPs have more legislation to vote on, their minds, and efforts, will be focused on the set pieces that will almost certainly have to happen before any General Election: the Autumn Statement and the Budget, both of which could well provide a far greater insight into the battle lines of the election than today’s speech.
Rishi Sunak wants to govern for the long term and says today’s King Speech will allow him to do that. That’s doubtful, given his position in the polls, with Sir Keir Starmer saying again this afternoon that this is a government out of time and out of ideas. By the time King Charles makes his second speech as a fully-fledged monarch, what he reads out may well be of a very different hue.