Less than 24 hours after the king’s speech, supposedly one of the most reverberant events in the parliamentary calendar, Wednesday’s political headlines were quickly made elsewhere – by tensions between ministers and police over pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and by the not wholly unexpected resignation of a not widely known and extremely junior shadow minister.
Rishi Sunak is, of course, keen to embarrass Labour over the Israel-Hamas conflict and the protests. The latest iteration of Labour’s internal difficulties over the conflict – extremely unlikely to be the last – will not have been unwelcome to him. But the government’s readiness to switch attention away from its own programme at the start of the last parliamentary session before the general election also tells you something about the bigger picture in British politics.
That bigger picture is not about the Middle East, nor about how Britain should be responding to it. That issue seems largely settled, in spite of the anguish of the protests. Nor is it about the reappearance of one of Labour’s most historic internal divisions, going right back to the outbreak of the first world war, over the use of force in international affairs.
It is not even about Keir Starmer’s unmistakable determination to show voters that Labour can again be trusted on national defence after the Jeremy Corbyn years. Starmer has won that argument both inside and outside the party, and not even Suella Braverman’s shameless provocations or the dire situation in Gaza are likely to change it.
What these events show about the bigger picture is that the government’s programme in the king’s speech has surprisingly little riding on it. It is already at risk of being a November damp squib rather than an autumnal Tory sparkler. Sunak’s conference week attempts to portray himself as the agent of change have failed, and the king’s speech is an embodiment and admission of that failure.
The programme sets out neither a diagnosis of what is wrong with the country nor a prescription for curing it. It is a collection of ad hoc measures, wholly lacking in vision. Its 21 bills make only marginal statements about the difference that Sunak claims to embody for Britain. Above all, they make few statements about the issues that, according to surveys, are likely to dominate the election.
Those issues are very big. According to the most recent Ipsos issues index, the top four issues for the voters are the economy, inflation and prices, the NHS and immigration. Yet there is nothing in the king’s speech about any of them. Instead, the new parliamentary session will have five justice and policing bills and two on housing, a tighter ban on smoking and a loosening of controls over oil and gas drilling in the North Sea.
It is an unambitious agenda. It is not an attempt at a game-changer. It is not designed to get Conservative MPs out of bed in the morning. Even Sunak himself did not seem fired up by it when he spoke to MPs on Tuesday.
The package bears the hallmarks of a set of measures that will not cause big party splits, that will enable MPs defending marginal seats to be away from Westminster a lot, and can be quietly abandoned without major loss in the unlikely event that Sunak calls a spring poll. Nor is there anything in the package that will strike fear into Labour.
This could mean that Sunak’s election battle plan actually lies elsewhere, and that some elements of it are more likely to be revealed in the chancellor’s autumn statement in a fortnight’s time, and then, even more crucially, in his budget next spring. There would at least be some traditional logic in doing that. Some elements of economic recovery, a giveaway budget and a sense that the worst is now behind us would make a case, of kinds, for Sunak to ask voters for a “doctor’s mandate” to help rebuild the economy.
But there is little evidence that this is in fact what Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have in mind in the autumn statement. For one thing, the economy is not nearly as buoyant as they were hoping in the spring, when Hunt delivered the last budget. Inflation remains high, at 6.7%. The Bank of England has warned of zero growth before 2025. The Bank governor, Andrew Bailey, said on Wednesday that it was too early for interest rate cuts. Borrowing costs have risen. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research warned this week that Britain faces a “decade in the doldrums”.
All this adds up to a forbidding backdrop against which to try to launch anything like a feelgood programme or a big stimulus package. For a lot of Tory MPs, feeling good still means tax cuts and reduced public expenditure, in spite of the devastating impact of the Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng budget a year ago. This time, cutting taxes might mean having to break the so-called triple lock on pensions, and antagonising the pensioner voters on whom the Tories so strongly depend.
The truth is that Sunak and Hunt cannot risk doing a Kwarteng and ignoring the Office for Budget Responsibility’s new fiscal forecasts at the end of the month. Indeed, the reality may well be that there is no Sunak battle plan anyway. Reports that he has all but given up may in fact be closer to the mark. “We call him Sunk,” a backbencher was reported as saying this week. This week’s king’s speech was certainly a wasted opportunity. So much so that, with Sunak, the big picture may be that there is no big picture at all.