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LONDON – Never mind Partygate – let’s get on with the work.
That will be British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pitch to voters on Tuesday as he tries to convince them – and his unruly MPs – that he is more interested in governing than in scorching headlines (and police fines) for breaking coronavirus rule.
Tuesday’s Queen’s speech – the official name for the unveiling of the UK government’s new legislative program – gives Johnson a chance to bring this point home with a series of bills he hopes will change his electoral fortune and will turn the page in the saga.
But as Johnson enters the end of his first term in office, the clock is ticking, and not everyone is convinced he can deliver on the big promises he’s already made to voters, let alone a bunch of new ones.
Some believe he will try to get through the coming months unscathed.
This year’s Queen’s speech, normally a grand occasion, will have one big difference: Queen Elizabeth herself will not be there. Citing health concerns, Buckingham Palace confirmed Monday night that her son Prince Charles will take her place.
However, there will also be a lot of fame. Prime Ministers of all political ranks have long used the new seat to send a clear signal to voters about what they think matters, and Johnson is no different.
Political aides say David Canzini, the strategist brought in to tighten the 10 Downing Street operation amid the partygate scandal, has pushed for the new agenda to focus on the most voter-friendly legislation. In that spirit, a series of “Brexit Opportunities” laws are expected that aim to sell the benefits of leaving the EU.
Also note what has been omitted. The Johnson administration already seems cold about the long-promised ban on imports of foie gras and fur, excluding a ban on conversion therapy for transgender children. “Forgive me for being a conservative, but I don’t think the Conservative Party wants to ban things for the sake of the cause,” a minister said of the abandoned animal welfare plans.
Canzini, meanwhile, has one eye on a crucial audience closer to home: Johnson’s own MPs.
An ex-assistant, who has watched the strategist at work, believes the messages in the Queen’s speech will be more about “saving Boris” than about winning an election. “What they want to do is say to Conservative MPs, ‘We’re in an election campaign right now – like it or not, you’d be crazy to change leaders,'” the former aide said.
Conservative MPs – who ultimately have the power to overthrow Johnson before the election – are still mulling over his future after he was fined by police for attending a rule-breaking party at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the immediate threat to Johnson’s position appears to have abated – and Labor rival Keir Starmer now has his own coronavirus rules to contend with – things could quickly get worse for Johnson if more fines come his way or if a imminent official report enters the party gate saga is damning.
It is therefore in Downing Street’s interest to scare MPs a little with campaign-style messages. “It is normal to think about elections at the turn of this year and next year, but they will talk very loudly because it is good for Boris,” said the same ex-assistant of the No. 10 strategy. goes backwards, it’s bullshit. There are still two years to go.”
Henry Hill, deputy editor of the grassroots Tory website ConservativeHome, echoed that sentiment. “Boris’ team is aware that there is a time limit to get rid of him. They are just trying to cross that line, which I think they suspect this summer break and the fall conference.”
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But even as Downing Street looks to make a fresh start with Tuesday’s legislative announcements, it faces strong headwinds and has left some of the toughest tasks it is setting itself on until very late in the day.
The rising cost of living – with energy prices particularly hitting voters hard – continues to dominate Westminster’s agenda. “You can’t make laws against inflation,” said the ex-assistant.
Johnson is also dealing with a large backlog of existing pledges, which resulted in the transfer of a number of bills that it could not pass in the final session of parliament. For example, it has yet to enact into law part of its acclaimed energy strategy, announced in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and intended to help alleviate the cost of living.
Analysis by Emma Norris, research director at the Institute for Government think tank, found that about half of the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto had been completed in late 2021, putting some 40 of its pledges at risk.
“In this Queen’s speech, they need to make progress in some of the areas that have been postponed or suspended,” she said, “especially to make progress in some of their government’s defining policy areas, such as leveling, net zero [carbon emissions] and Brexit opportunities.”
Voters will forgive the government for focusing on the pandemic in recent years, said Will Tanner, a former Downing Street employee who now heads the Onward think tank. But, he warned, they will want to see ministers now making rapid progress on some of those major domestic challenges.
“A lot of things like this in an ideal world would have happened a year or two ago, so the government is a little retarded trying to push things through quickly so they can really show voters that they’ve made progress, Tanner said.
Johnson went big in the last queen’s speech about “leveling up” – his flagship domestic agenda aimed at addressing regional disparities and improving parts of the country that have long felt neglected by Westminster.
After initial accusations that the agenda was vague and politically skewed, his government released a more detailed plan earlier this year and already promised a bill on Tuesday to refurbish and revive city centers.
When it comes out, that plan will be hugely welcome in some circles. Simon Fell, one of the Conservative MPs elected in 2019 to a seat that has historically been a Labor stronghold, said: “People need to see tangible change in their communities that they can point to and say, ‘The government has in my city invested like no one else would.’”
However, a Tory MP for a disadvantaged constituency warned that while leveling is still an absolute priority, he is concerned that many projects could still be half-finished or half-finished in the next election due to challenges with the supply of materials and soaring inflation.
“What’s the point of saying ‘we spent £5 million on X’ when most people look at X and say, ‘Well, that’s a waste of £5 million?'” the MP asked.
Hill of ConservativeHome was even more skeptical: “If you can put the name of your project on one piece of legislation and your legislation is as big as closing the North-South divide, it shows that you really haven’t done the job. It feels a bit like a student scrambling to get an essay in.”