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Running on Empty
The King’s Speech and the dance of the dividing lines
For some months now the dwindling group of Tory MPs retaining any hope of electoral success have been putting their faith in an autumn reset. The Conservative conference, the King’s Speech, and the autumn statement, were to provide three big opportunities for Sunak to set out a refreshed offer to the electorate.
The conference has come and gone, with no impact on the polls, and none could have been expected after the shambolic confusion over the cancellation of HS2. The autumn statement is coming up in a few weeks, but Jeremy Hunt is desperately trying to play down suggestions he’ll be offering up juicy, if unaffordable, tax cuts.
So there was a lot riding on the King’s Speech – which set out the legislative programme for the rest of the Parliament. Any hopes, though, were quickly dashed when the list of Bills was published. The media quickly dismissed it as thin and lightweight and moved on to more interesting topics, like Suella Braverman’s increasingly desperate attempts to get fired and start her leadership campaign.
But it’s worth spending a bit of time on because it tells us a lot about why there really is no scope for a dramatic Tory recovery.
The content wasn’t just thin it was close to non-existent. The Telegraph noted that the 21 Bills were the fewest since 2014, but the crude number doesn’t tell the story. Take out the Bills that are carried over from the previous session; or are small single issue Bills (like giving Transport for London the right to regulate pedicabs); or are tidying up exercises (e.g. putting the Trans-Pacific partnership in law or the Arbitration Bill); and there’s barely anything left.
You can tell how desperate they were to pad things out because there’s both a Sentencing Bill and a Criminal Justice Bill, the latter of which contains various provisions for increased sentencing. There’s absolutely no reason to have two Bills rather than one, other than a lack of anything else to say. The whole thing resembles a student hurriedly adding conjunctions into a coursework essay to meet the word limit requirements.
Only three of the 21 Bills are both new and likely to have a significant impact on many peoples’ lives and two of those are from Michael Gove. The Leasehold Reform Bill will put limits on the fees that freeholders can inflict on the five million leaseholder households and ban leasehold sales of houses (but not flats) in the future. The long-awaited Renter’s Reform Bill promises to end “no-fault” evictions, but in a concession to landlord Tory MPs will not be brought in until a new court process and stronger possession grounds for landlords are in place.
Then we have the Tobacco and Vapes Bill which will make it illegal for anyone born after the 1st January 2009 to buy cigarettes. I will admit to being torn on this – it has the potential to be a big public health win but it is also undoubtedly illiberal, risks an increase in illegal trade, and will inevitably become a total ban in time given the absurdity of a 25 year old in 2034 having to ask a 26 year old to buy them some fags. It is, though, undoubtedly significant.
Beyond that there’s nothing. Just no substantive agenda. It is, of course, possible for the government to do things without legislation, or using existing vehicles, but when you look around there really is very little happening at all. Managed decline is too polite a term. The NHS is continuing its descent into chaos without ministers seeming overly bothered. Sunak and Hunt wouldn’t even cough up £1 billion to cover some of the costs of industrial action, leaving NHS Trusts having to scale back plans to reduce waiting lists, which are now at 7.8 million. Data for October showed almost twice as many people waiting more than four hours in A&E than in the whole of 2010, and it’s not even winter yet.
Braverman is too busy arguing with the police to consider any reforms to a criminal justice system that is failing to charge more than 6% of recorded crimes. Schools reform seems to have dropped off the radar completely. Housing starts have predictably collapsed after NIMBY Tory rebels persuaded Sunak to ditch statutory targets for local authorities. Nothing is happening anywhere.
It's partly exhaustion, partly a cabinet with too many talentless hacks, and partly an inability to pass anything through a fractious party impatient to get on with its post-election bust-up. Several proposed Bills from departments were killed because they were either too internally contentious or were at risk of being amended in a way that could lead to an embarrassing defeat. Every Bill was also vetted to ensure there was no risk of amendments from Labour that could force MPs into voting against electorally popular things. For instance I’ve been told that an education Bill was rejected on the grounds that there could be a “Marcus Rashford amendment” on free school meals.
Is there even a political strategy?
It’s true to say that legislative programmes in the last year of a government tend to be lighter, though the only one as thin as this was 2014/15 when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had fallen out and couldn’t agree on any substantive programme. Inevitably attention is increasingly focused on the election and creating “dividing lines” for the campaign, particularly for 2019 Tory voters who are currently saying “don’t know” or “Reform” to pollsters.
But this King’s Speech didn’t even fulfil that extremely limited and depressing goal. The crime and sentencing Bills were touted as creating some but there’s nothing in them that Labour can’t support. Opposition parties back the three substantive Bills on leasehold, evictions and smoking. The only Bill that Labour won’t support is the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill which will create an annual application window for new oil and gas licences in the North Sea. It is an understatement to say that this is not high on the list of voter concerns.
They can’t force dividing lines because Labour are just refusing to play that game. As Stephen Bush put it this week:
“Part of the problem is that there is a gap not just between the state of the country and Sunak’s political strategy, but a gap between the Labour party he would like to face and the one that he is actually facing. This is most visible on law and order….. There’s…no significant appetite or constituency within the Labour party to have a big row with the Conservative party over this area, and as such it badly needs a rethink.”
There are plenty of criticisms one can make of Labour but they are not going to get caught out by this strategy. Indeed they have figured out how to turn it to their advantage by picking a handful of the most misconceived Tory dividing lines on which to fight. Which means British politics at the moment rather resembles Wile E Coyote attempting to catch Roadrunner while repeatedly dropping a boulder on his own head.
The environment and net zero is a good example, which is why the north sea drilling Bill is the only one Labour will oppose. Sunak, partly through his own frustrations at what he saw as Boris Johnson’s overpromising on net zero, and partly to create a dividing line, has ended up pushing a message that sounds more anti-environmental than his actual policy agenda, and is extremely unpopular with voters. Labour know it, and have enthusiastically embraced the fight. As the Conservative strategist James Frayne has noted, based on large amounts of polling and focus grouping, this is a complete dead end for Tory electoral prospects:
“Time will also tell whether the Conservatives take up the theme of green scepticism more broadly. Many are encouraging them to go down this route. Here, I think we can be clear: our research shows this would be a more serious mistake.
In the poll, we paid special attention to those who have moved from the party since 2019 and those who are still intending to vote Conservative at the next election. Among both of these groups, a majority believe the UK should aim to reach Net Zero by 2050, and a very small proportion (15 per cent of wavering 2019 supporters) would support dropping the target outright.
We also discovered that 2019 Conservative voters who are wavering on voting Conservative again, would consider a party who dropped Net Zero to be out of touch (net +14), stupid (net +10), short-sighted (net +10), uncaring for the next generation (net +14), and unscientific (net +6).”
Pretty much the only genuine dividing line the Tories have created on their own terms, that Labour would prefer not to have to engage with, is on the Rwanda deportations, which remain popular with Tory 2019 voters. The Supreme Court is announcing its decision on whether these should be allowed to go ahead on Wednesday. If they are then its value in political terms will come down to whether they can make it work in practice – given Rwanda’s very limited capacity – and how the reality of people being forced, screaming and in tears, on to planes will play with the public. If they fail to make it work, or the courts prevent it from going ahead, then talking about immigration will keep pushing the most concerned voters towards Reform, while alienating more liberal conservatives.
The most fruitful source of dividing lines for the Tories in the past – Brexit excepted – was the economy, contrasting their prudence with the risk of a profligate, high taxing, Labour party. But Starmer and Reeves are refusing to play that game either, doggedly sticking to spending plans everyone knows are a fantasy. Labour could take more risks here. All the polling we have suggests the public are more worried about the state of public services than they are about taxes. They can also call on the ghost of Liz Truss every time the Tories try to emphasise prudence. But, whether you agree with the strategy or not, Labour have resolutely closed down the dividing line.
Even if Jeremy Hunt does offer up some tax cuts for his desperate MPs it’s unlikely to make any difference. Indeed it could well help Labour, given the absurdity of our economic debate, when the Tories decide to spend money on something it gives Starmer and Reeves a free pass to do the same. They could offer up an alternative package, perhaps mixing spending on key public priorities with some targeted tax cuts of their own. Labour haven’t yet shown us they have the ideas to fix the country but they have mastered the dance of the dividing lines, and in doing so completely suffocated the government’s political strategy.
The King’s Speech is, essentially, an acknowledgement that the game is up. There’s neither the time, pre-election, nor the will to fix the country’s problems. There’s not even the space left for a cynically coherent campaign. That group of Tory MPs who still hold out hope is now a very small one. It’s not clear the Prime Minister is even in it any more.
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