‘Use the majority!’. That is the rallying cry of Conservative supporters frustrated that, almost 18 months on from Boris Johnson’s victory at the 2019 general election, the Government has done relatively little to try and set the domestic agenda.
Now, that isn’t entirely the Prime Minister’s fault. He was elected first and foremost to ‘get Brexit done’, which he mostly did, and then everything got blown off course by the pandemic. But even in the months before that crisis hit there was a sense that the Government was spinning its wheels, and uncertainty about what (if anything) ‘Johnsonism’ would mean in practice.
The Queen’s Speech is an effort to make up for lost time, the outline of a hyperactive legislative agenda of more than 30 bills that will keep ministers busy right up until the next general election, which seems likely to be in 2023.
By far the most important, from the perspective of both the party’s long-term prospects and the nation’s, is the Planning Bill, which The Times says “would remove the power from local planning authorities to turn down housing developments if they meet set standards and force local authorities to set new zones for housing”.
Whilst this is being dressed up as about securing the Tories’ hold on the ‘Red Wall’, which is anchored on homeowners, in truth it is also essential to protecting their position in the south of England. Not only are sky-high house prices in London putting home ownership and family formation out of the reach of young professionals, but overspill into the commuter belt risks dozens of seats following Brighton and Canterbury to the left over the medium-term.
Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, is doing what he can to drive development using his existing power to grant appeals for planning applications, and seems better able than many ministers to grasp the need to build structural buttresses for the Conservative vote.
Unfortunately, many of the Conservative MPs for these seats are almost unabashedly champions of the home-owning interest and fiercely opposed to new development. It was their spluttering about the ‘mutant algorithm’ – another attempt to force local authorities to build – that stalled the Government’s last effort to push this agenda forward.
If Johnson and Jenrick can deliver meaningful planning reform, it will be a strong candidate to be this Government’s most enduring legacy. Is the majority large enough to overcome the vested interest caucus, though? That remains to be seen.
Other bills also herald welcome reforms. I have previously made the case on this site for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will give the police more powers to tackle disruptive protests – although I think it may need to be followed up by a restructuring of public order policing.
Meanwhile the Border Control Bill introduces tough new rules against illegal entrants to the UK, which when paired with the new, more liberal points-based immigration system is probably going to put the Government close to the sweet spot on this question, at least as far as the public are concerned.
Likewise, binning the Fixed-term Parliaments Act would not only be a victory for constitutional conservatives over the reform brigade, but also help to ensure that the public are never excluded from the debate the way they were during the death throes of Theresa May’s premiership.
If there’s one thing missing from the list, its anything substantial on schools. There is something about freedom of speech on campus and a new right to state-funded adult education for those without A Levels or equivalent qualifications, but nothing big on driving forward the school reform agenda.
Now it might be that we actually have all the legislation in place to put some life back into the Conservatives’ education revolution, and what’s needed is for the Government to properly grasp the nettle once more. In a previous CapX piece I suggested bringing back Michael Gove as Secretary of State might be one way to achieve this. But the sad truth may be that school reform is simply not the priority to the new leadership that it was under the Coalition, and Johnson opts for a steady-as-you-go approach until the next election.
If so, it will show that ministers still have no idea what really matters in the culture war. There is little use trying to legislate wokescolds away on campus whilst embattled headteachers fight a losing battle against the teaching unions in places such as Pimlico Academy.
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