One of the remarkable things about this Government is the way it has managed to combine a hyper-active approach to legislation with an utterly lethargic approach to meaningful reform.
Today’s Queen’s Speech illustrates this. It contained no fewer than 38 new bills – but not one to get excited about, or that seems to rise to the extraordinary challenge facing the Government and the nation as the cost-of-living crisis starts to bite.
Which is not to say there aren’t worthwhile reforms. Making student loans available to older learners is not only fair, but might help to discourage the current tendency to just shovel young people straight into higher education. The Brexit Freedoms Bill might amount to something, if the opportunities it affords are pursued with imagination and vigour by ministers. More public order legislation is long overdue.
But the list is still dominated by what’s missing. Most obviously, there is no Planning Bill. Boris Johnson has shrunk from what is by far the most urgent reform facing the country. Fiddling around the edges, however worthily, is not going deliver the sea change in housing supply that young Brits desperately need.
Planning reform has instead been rolled into the Levelling up and Regeneration Bill, and the primary provision seems to be giving locals even more power over developments in order to stop the south becoming, in Tom Tugendhat’s phrase, ‘the patio of England’. This does not seem likely to accelerate building where it’s needed.
If ‘Levelling Up’ were a coherent and ambitious programme, it would surely run like a stick of rock through multiple pieces of new legislation. Instead it seems largely boiled down to a single bill which bears its name, and that to deliver reforms on the scale of ‘punishing landlords for empty shops’.
Hopefully the north of England will enjoy even more charity shops, or tax-dodging American candy stores, or whatever else could flood in to fill the gaps when the Government mandates extra supply without the actual economic renewal that might fill those vacant stores with productive businesses.
This legislative hyper-activity isn’t new. The Legislation Unit in Downing Street has been grappling for some time with a very full legislative timetable. It’s just that so many of the bills have such a small scope that the total doesn’t add up to very much.
One might be tempted to argue that it’s better than nothing. But this isn’t the case. Parliamentary time and ministerial attention are both finite resources; the opportunity cost of bad or trivial legislation is (in theory at least) the time and space to pass good and important legislation.
This fits a broader trend with this Government: the tendency to speak loudly because it is carrying such a small stick; to indulge in bombastic rhetoric to cover for a near total lack of actual proposals.
We see this in the rows over the BBC. Ministers don’t seem to have a positive vision for how public service broadcasting should work, rather than simply hostility to how the BBC currently operates. It is thus easy for their opponents to paint even worthwhile reform proposals as ill-intentioned. (And when they do have an opportunity to do something imaginative in the media space, as with Channel 4 and the proposed Media Bill, they simply sell it instead.)
But if none of this is new, the political consequences are getting more serious. The Prime Minister no longer has the imperative of combating Covid-19 to justify his preference for ducking the big challenges, and he is running out of time to deliver any meaningful change on the ground before the next general election.
Like a student who abuses a thesaurus to hit their wordcount, or endlessly organises and colour-codes their revision timetable rather than actually hitting the books, the Government seems to be trying to substitute activity for action.
But such efforts get always found out. There is no volume of legislation which can compensate for the absence of ideas, and it is increasingly clear that when it comes to the biggest problems facing the UK, those are in short supply in Downing Street.
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