The latest Queen’s Speech takes place in a nation of two narratives: delivery and division. Prime Minister Boris Johnson used the recent local elections to paint his party as one that has delivered – both Brexit and a successful vaccine roll out. Now he is keen to show his bevy of new Blue voters that he will also deliver on his other 2019 manifesto priorities: regional growth, new homes, social care and the environment.
Yet the country is also deeply divided, with the state of the Union in peril and continuing crises in social care, housing, and building safety. As the Queen spoke of plans to invest in “more preventative care” in the NHS, one may argue that the nation as a whole could have done with a bit more preventative care in recent times.
But the Prime Minister knows his audience. Despite heading into the twelfth year of continuous Conservative-led government, and a rocky few months of pandemic disruption and sleaze allegations, Johnson’s majority has increased to 90 since the 2019 election, and his personal popularity as the man that ‘got Brexit done’ is still remarkably strong.
Next month it will be five years since the Brexit referendum recast Britain’s ideological landscape. Five years of expectations being overturned and the political map being redrawn. So while this speech was still steeped in the spirit of Brexit Britain, the government also knows that the remain / leave divide won’t govern voting patterns forever, and much of this agenda seemed to be about consolidation and future-proofing for elections to come.
Core to the speech were those oft-quoted phrases: levelling up and building back better. London didn’t get a mention, while bills were announced to strengthen economic ties across the four nations, improve regional infrastructure, boost local rail and bus networks, and build freeports. In a year when the eyes of the world will turn on the UK for COP26, sustainability also got top billing, as did reforms to renters rights, building safety, and the much-trailed overhaul of the planning system.
There is a darker side to this consolidation agenda, too, with plans to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011), review the power of the courts to challenge the government, and introduce the need for voters to provide photo identification. So here again there are two conflicting narratives: one focused on devolution and levelling up local regions, the other on the centralisation of constitutional and electoral power in Downing Street.
There is much positivity to take away from this Queen’s Speech, however. These 26 bills do seem to address key priorities and concerns of many Britons: from cheaper, safer housing and renting; to education and skills-building; to protecting the planet and tackling climate change. There is also a real sense that the country is coming out of hibernation and is well placed to harness the economic recovery to distribute the benefits far and wide across the regions of the UK.
Boris Johnson has transformed the electoral landscape by using the age-old divide and rule strategy. He knows he will be judged on whether his party can continue to be seen to deliver on the commitments they’ve made to those who put their faith in him. These bills may be the start of that delivery, and of a healing process for a country of two halves. Otherwise, the division he has left unchecked could prove to be his downfall.
Thomas Parfitt is a senior account executive at Camargue