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The Queen’s Speech fails to address undelivered manifesto promises

Passing the legislation flagged in the Queen’s Speech will move many manifesto commitments from the government's ‘to do’ to the ‘done’ list

Passing the legislation flagged in the Queen’s Speech will move many manifesto commitments from the government's ‘to do’ to the ‘done’ list. But there are still big gaps in its agenda and difficult conversations deferred, writes Sarah Nickson

The Queen’s Speech saw the government set down some markers for the rest of its term – and explain how it will deliver the manifesto promises remaining on its to-do list. But the slate of new bills – announced as part of Boris Johnson’s pitch to “unite and level up the whole of our United Kingdom” – still leaves plenty of questions about how the government will deliver, as it insists it will do, on the full list of manifesto pledges.

Plenty of pledges have been delivered – but not the difficult ones

A new IfG paper maps the government’s progress on its manifesto promises, and on first glance the government deserves some credit. Despite the all-encompassing and unexpected demands of the coronavirus pandemic dominating the government’s term, the tally of ticked-off manifesto promises is surprisingly high. Our research shows that of 287 measurable promises in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, the government has completed – or is on track to deliver – nearly half. Several more – on criminal justice, elections, the constitution and animal welfare – will join that list if the government passes the legislation flagged in the Queen’s Speech.

But the stark numbers can be misleading. Many of the completed manifesto promises, like funding commitments for public services, are politically uncontroversial and can be delivered at the stroke of a minister’s pen. And while the government has also started many of its promised reviews and consultations, setting them up is much more straightforward than implementing their outcomes.

The list of over 70 promises which are off track or remain untouched looks far more complicated. The government will need to shift its focus to delivery and confront difficult choices – some of which it appears from the Queen’s Speech to have kicked further down the road.

The Queen's Speech had little detail on net zero, "levelling up" and social care

Despite the promise back in 2019 to “urgently” address social care, the government declined to give further details about its plans – and importantly, who will pay. Nor did it spell out further details of its net zero plans, where significant policy gaps lie, and conversations will need to be had about how the costs imposed by those policies will be borne.

The speech did hint at the government’s likely approach to one manifesto dilemma it will need to resolve: how to balance the books, while delivering promised improvements to public services and keeping rates of VAT, national insurance and income tax at existing levels. The renewed commitment that the public finances will be “returned to a sustainable path once the economic recovery is secure” suggests that the government is still hoping to meet its promise not to borrow to fund day-to-day spending – currently on track for 2025/26 – although that might not be possible in the face of political and economic reality”.

Of course, not every promise will be solved through legislation, and the government’s other major challenge is to sharpen its focus on delivery. The Queen dutifully announced that her government would “level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom”,  but “levelling up” will need to be defined, programmes implemented, and their results measured. And on net zero, as the Institute has argued, the government needs to improve coordination among its own departments and do a better job of translating policy on paper to results on the ground.

A couple of recent moves show the government understands its own weakness. It has appointed Neil O’Brien as a levelling-up adviser and launched a new Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. The latter will require prime ministerial attention, not just his title.

Manifestos matter – and the government should be judged on whether it delivers

Given the demands of the pandemic, the public might have been understanding if the government had said that its manifesto could not be delivered in full. But ministers have instead continued to insist that it will be – and should be judged accordingly. Manifestos are not the only metric by which governments’ successes and failures are judged – but they matter. Breaking high-profile promises can erode a party’s standing, and governments point to previous manifestos to show their record of achievement.

The government deserves credit for those promises it has delivered, and passing the bills promised in the Queen’s Speech gets the government closer to achieving the promises in its 2019 manifesto. But difficult decisions and a sharper focus on delivery are needed if it is to turn its favourite slogans into tangible results.

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