When David Cameron was prime minister, the Tories flirted with the idea of a Queen’s Speech with no bills in it at all. The aim was to show that more legislation was not the answer. This idea was quickly abandoned on the grounds that it would make the government look like it was out of ideas. This week’s Queen’s Speech contained 38 bills. Yet little of the proposed legislation will have made a difference to the most significant challenges facing this country by the next election.
The biggest issue for Britain, the cost-of-living squeeze, won’t be solved by legislation: inflation can’t be brought back to its two per cent target by a bill. But even so, the point of all these bills seems unclear. The legislative programme adds up to less than the sum of its parts and that’s because, post-Covid, the government hasn’t yet settled on a new raison d’être.
Levelling up is meant to be the defining purpose of this government, and there is duly a levelling up bill. It contains some sensible measures, including a plan to revive high streets by allowing councils to auction off the leases on shops that have been unoccupied for some time. But this bill won’t be transformative. There is a lack of urgency here. There’s no plan, for instance, to rapidly improve transport links from the most deprived towns to thriving cities nearby.
The Queen’s Speech may not change much, but that’s not to say Westminster itself isn’t in a state of flux. It is a sign of how centralised this country has become that so many in Westminster regard the principal function of local elections as offering a sign as to what might happen at the next general election. And last week’s results have begun to change the assumptions of Tory MPs, particularly southern ones, about what is likely to happen.
Before the local elections, the general operating assumption was that the next election would probably see a Tory majority, albeit one reduced from the party’s 2019 victory. But after last week’s vote, there’s beginning to be a sense that an anti-Tory majority might be more likely.
The Tories lost close to 500 seats in these elections. Conservative campaign headquarters had suggested that 800 losses was par in these contests, but that figure was really about expectation management. Most Tories thought the losses would be between 300 and 400 and were disappointed by the actual result. Their disappointment may well have turned to anger had the news not broken that Keir Starmer is being investigated by Durham police (as Katy Balls discusses elsewhere in this week’s magazine). ‘He has the luck of the devil,’ one Boris Johnson ally said.
Now, losing so many seats in mid-term after 12 years in government is not normally a harbinger of electoral Armageddon. The alarm for the Tories, though, is that it is hard to see where the good news comes from in the coming months. The Bank of England is warning of ten per cent inflation, and predicts the economy will barely grow in the later part of this year. As one member of the government payroll frets: ‘It is this bad before any of the really bad stuff has happened.’
It’s true that voters are not flocking to Starmer: across Britain, the Liberal Democrats gained twice as many councillors as Labour. But the worry for the Tories is that they have to win the next election outright because they don’t have any potential coalition partners. The Liberal Democrats won’t go in with them again, while the DUP’s ‘confidence and supply deal’ with the Tories is one of the reasons they have lost their position as the largest party in Northern Ireland. A sizeable number of southern Tories are worried that their seats are becoming vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats. One Tory with a small majority over the Lib Dems remarks: ‘I’m already written off in the minds of my colleagues.’
In 2019, the Tories could point to the dangers of a Jeremy Corbyn government. Any reservations these voters may have had about Johnson’s politics and style were trumped by their concerns about what a Corbyn government would mean for their finances and the nation’s defences. But Starmer is not alarming in the way that Corbyn was.
Tory MPs in Lib Dem targets think that the best chance of saving their seats is to find another way to make a Labour-led government a frightening prospect. One tells me: ‘I can only see one way to do this – you go really hard on the Union and Scotland.’ The thinking goes that because Labour are unlikely to win a majority on their own they will need the Scottish Nationalists not to oppose their Budgets and the Tories will suggest that they’ll have to offer things – including a second referendum – in exchange for this. One cabinet minister argues this will work because the idea of a strong Nicola Sturgeon pushing around a weak Starmer goes with the grain of how voters think about the two politicians.
The Tories are convinced that this tactic worked for them in 2015. They remember the adverts with Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket, and think this helped deliver their surprise majority. This time round, though, Labour have quite some time to prepare their response. They also have the benefit of learning from Miliband’s mistake. He ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP, which allowed the Tories to say he hadn’t ruled out a looser form of cooperation. This time, Labour can say that they will offer the SNP no deals or favours, and that if the Nationalists don’t like that then they can let the Tories back in.
The next election is not likely to be until 2024; the Tories will want to give real incomes as long as possible to start recovering after this bout of inflation. Much can happen in the next two-and-a-half years, but the Tories cannot confidently claim that they are currently on course to win.
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