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The government can be judged against the promises of this Queen's Speech

The hefty spending commitments in the Queen’s Speech show that Boris Johnson is winning the battle of ideas with his chancellor

The hefty spending commitments in the Queen’s Speech show that Boris Johnson is winning the battle of ideas with his chancellor, says Bronwen Maddox

A strikingly brief Queen’s Speech – matching the pared-back setting demanded by coronavirus and the Queen’s age – contained hard nuggets of policy inside big, airy statements of ambition. There is enough there, however, in the announcement of the 30 bills Boris Johnson’s government intends to pass to judge it by these promises.

The most important statement in the speech was that “My Government will ensure that the public finances are returned to a sustainable path once the economic recovery is secure”. This gives a nod to the concerns of chancellor Rishi Sunak – but the meaning of “secured” may prove to be usefully flexible for the prime minister. One of the great battles of ideas created by coronavirus is whether governments can spend with impunity from either bond markets or voters, and reports continue to put the chancellor on the prudent side of that argument and the prime minister on the other. Indeed the speech, on most interpretations, represented the spending of a great deal of money in just 10 minutes.

More pledges on ‘levelling up’ but still no detail on social care 

“Levelling up” was the big theme. The government’s pledges on life-time learning and giving every child a first rate education, well trailed ahead of the speech, are ones on which it can be held to task. A levelling-up white paper will spell out more details, but officials have been wrestling for months with one central problem; not only are the manifestations of levelling-up hard to quantify, but where they can be captured in metrics, as in some aspects of health and education, many will have deteriorated since the start of the pandemic.

Social care was notably missing from the list. The repeated delays are beyond even a dark joke. The pandemic exposed the failures of care for the elderly and the lack of integration with the NHS. One of the prime minister’s greatest points of vulnerability in the past year is the number of deaths in care homes during the first wave – at least 20,000 and some estimates putting the figure much higher.

Of the bills listed in the speech, many concerned the adjustment to life outside the European Union. New rules on procurement of goods and services from the private sector, replacing EU law, come too late to diffuse the rows about the government’s award of contracts at the start of the emergency. But they are welcome; the IfG will scrutinise these closely. The subsidy control bill will set out how the government believes it should support private companies now that the UK is outside the EU. The UK was one of the most trenchant defenders of curbs on state aid when inside the EU, in the name of preserving a competitive market; it is to be hoped that the Johnson government does not suddenly discover a taste for self-indulgence on this front.

Johnson's promise of recovery has won him votes and raised voters' expectations

Other elements sound good but there must be a risk of wishful thinking – such as extending 5G and gigabit broadband or making the UK a science power. But it is right that these causes need investment. The pandemic has demonstrated the UK’s strength in virus sequencing – and its comparative weakness in mRNA science, for example.

A cluster of constitutional and judicial measures provoked much immediate criticism. Critics such as the Electoral Reform Society argued that there was no need to require people to produce ID in order to vote and that the move risked disenfranchising people (an argument with a long history in the US). The government also signalled its desire to curtail judicial review, and for a way of ending the trials of those in the Troubles – something that may however need delicate negotiation with the Republic of Ireland and republicans in Northern Ireland if it is not to inflame already high tensions there. Meanwhile, controversy over the proposed new powers for police in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill continues. The toughness on asylum and migration, to be tackled in new legislation, will please part of the Conservative party’s core.

As last week’s local election results showed, Boris Johnson has persuaded many people from very different parts of the country and walks of life to back him, by offering a promise not just of recovery from the pandemic but rebuilding the country. Voters’ expectations of Boris Johnson are high and they are prepared to back him while those hopes remain intact. But even if “levelling-up” remains stubbornly undefined, it still remains the standard by which people will judge him. Johnson knows this: it is clear from the spending pledges in this Queen’s Speech. That is why, despite the diplomatic nod to his chancellor’s philosophy, there must be a suspicion that in the battle of ideas of the post-Covid years, the prime minister’s inclination will win the day.

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