For a Government with a majority as strong as Boris Johnson’s, it really has been a frustrating year lost. Big numbers in the Commons usually translates to bold legislative agendas – but the Covid pandemic has necessarily curtailed these efforts as the focus across Government has been on sustaining the country through the crisis and in reacting to the many unexpected developments within that.
But clearly, that agenda has not gone away, but was simply postponed. Fresh off the back of a set off national results that clearly affirm the Conservatives position across the English heartlands, and resting on an increased majority of 82 in the House of Commons, the Conservatives are clearly now ready to begin implementing the 2019 manifesto that they were so strongly returned on.
There are clear themes emerging today: on boosting security and updating the constitution, on improving opportunities and tackling the regional and safety disparities in housing and education, as well as supporting the NHS out of Covid and pivoting to tackle a green, digital age.
Boosting the NHS
The NHS faces challenges like never before – huge waiting lists, staff burn-out and rising patient numbers from acute illnesses that would have otherwise been caught early and headed off if not for lockdown. The Government’s flagship commitment to support them through this challenging phase will be backed by a Health and Care Bill to extend political control over the NHS, roll back market led reforms and help reposition it to tackle key clinical and public health priorities rather than be led by bulk outcomes alone. The proposals are hugely ambitious in their breadth, and represent a substantial step-back from the Lansley Reforms of the early 2010s. But they are also lacking in detail on social care – a rapidly growing crisis said to be trapped by internal paralysis on the cost implications on reform.
Security and Policing
This Government has always been robust with its commitments on home affairs – and the some of the most original policy ideas set to be implemented through the legislation announced today fall within that category. New commitments on tightening asylum and border rules post-Brexit, on implementing Voter ID laws, updating the Official Secrets Act to tackle subversion and in the carry-over of the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are all prominent.
None of this should come as a surprise – this is a Government elected to deliver Brexit that ran a campaign laden with rhetoric on re-buttressing the border. There are controversial questions on the efficacy of many of these measures (voter ID in particular), but it is undeniable that Priti Patel’s stint in the Home Office has proven popular with the traditional Conservative grassroots – and has certainly not harmed their inroads in the Red Wall.
Whilst these initiatives are likely to make little impact on the day to day lives of most, they allow the Conservatives to credibly claim to be the party of law and order – an issue that Labour still struggles to define itself on. They are – in many senses – common sense reforms for the Conservatives to pursue, but it remains to be seen if they make much of a difference on crime and immigration numbers, or if voters even care about the results.
Economic Recovery, Opportunities and Infrastructure
Much has been made in recent weeks of the “levelling up” agenda – whilst it’s obvious that there is still a lot of work to be done to build out that strategy, there are some clear tactical initiatives that the Government are seizing on to sustain their efforts to create new visible opportunities and prop up decaying services in parts of the country. Skills is not only an obvious area that needs tackling, but is also an easy target for the Conservatives – with much to gain. Many have been left out of work by the Covid crisis, and many remain in industries that are rapidly changing. The Government’s commitment on a Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is a sensible, necessary commitment that will be hard to oppose – and will provide much needed funds for flexible education in adulthood to help those slipping through the cracks to tackle the challenges ahead.
This will also be supported by a programme of infrastructure investment – rolling out 5G, moving forward with HS2, and implementing the widely touted Freeports, to support areas that have been under-invested and left behind. The Procurement Bill and the Subsidy Control Bill, alongside the much anticipated Advanced Research and Innovation Agency will act as agents for delivering targeted outcomes both in terms of economic growth but also social value. Expect further detail here across the weeks to come as the PM’s new advisor on “Levelling Up” gets to work.
Housing and Planning
The Grenfell Tower Disaster has cast a shadow over politics for nearly 4 years now – one that got sadly longer just last week when a building with similar cladding caught fire, mercifully without injury. The Fire Safety Act faced a tortuous passage through Parliament at the very end of 2020, and the long-awaited Building Safety Bill (BSB) is now due to be formally introduced to follow it. The Bill is unlikely to have an easier time – when it was scrutinised in Draft form last year, many questions remained about everything to do with safety thresholds and the viability of strengthened regulatory regimes. Nevertheless, for a Party that aspires to a home-owning democracy, the volume of homes left unmortgage able by the cladding crisis is sore that is only getting worse, and the BSB is a vital opportunity to correct it.
The equal challenge on housing is also it’s availability – with many struggling to purchase homes as supply remains regionally variable and prices intensely stoked by Covid tax forbearances. At the root of the issue is an outdated planning system – which the Government are planning to tackle head on with a liberalising Planning Bill. With many Conservative councils representing the rural and suburban areas likely to see dramatic changes as a result of changes to the rules, reform poses a significant internal challenge for the Government. Nonetheless, solving the housing challenge is a necessary one if the Government wishes to continue to straddle it’s dominant coalition of Red Wall voters (where housing is plentiful and cheap, but opportunities limited) and the Southern Tory heartlands (where opportunities are plentiful but housing out of reach for a generation).
Big challenges require bold solutions – on Housing and Planning, the Conservatives are likely to face some of the most robust opposition across this Parliament.
The Constitution, Revised
The British Constitution is a nebulous idea that always results in difficult, unintelligible conversations in Parliament. One thing that both sides of the aisle can agree on is that the landmark Fixed Term Parliaments Act – implemented in 2011 as part of David Cameron’s Coalition Agreement – hasn’t worked and ought to be repealed. This was a long delayed Conservative manifesto commitment following the mess of the Summer of 2017, where Parliament was paralysed by gridlock over Brexit.
More controversial are the commitments to review the relationship between the judiciary, legislature and executive – couched in the language of refining and refocussing the scope of judicial review. Whilst the Government are unlikely to face much disagreement on the former initiative, on the latter, this Parliament may be a venue for some long delayed and fundamental disagreements on the relationship between different arms of the State. With an pro-independence majority in Holyrood, agitation on the relationship between the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments is likely to colour any discussions in this ambit for added complication.
Just as the green agenda now dominates much of Government policy making as the 2050 Net Zero goal draws ever closer, the a long awaited Environment Bill is also being brought forward. Delayed repeatedly, the Bill is set to include definitive targets for Government to meet that 2050 goal.
The environment – a challenge to reconcile with the economic recovery – is political gold-rush territory. Both sides lay claim to be the party of “Green” with some credibility. Given the direction of travel, this is an opportunity for the Government to be bold, and win plaudits in an area that not only has incredibly cut-through with demographics traditionally relatively hostile to the Conservatives, but is likely to set a model for other parts of the world to fall in behind. Combined with the equally delayed COP26 – for which the UK holds the Presidency – the environment is a key opportunity for the Government to lead from the front and begin to realise its “Global Britain” agenda.
Legislation for a Digital Age
Finally, it is not lost on watchers that our Parliament is increasingly legislating for a digital age in an 18th Century Palace steeped in history. For a long time now, the challenges posed by online interactions have outpaced the laws designed to regulate them. The proposals for an Online Safety Bill have rapidly become both an omni-bus designed to tackle those challenges, but also seek to balance strong regulation against growing the UK as a home for the digital economy and a democratic centre of free speech; a balance which has yet to be meaningfully tested in law anywhere in the western world to date – giving this Bill outsized importance.
Implementation challenges ahead
Legislating is not a trivial process – and this Government’s agenda contains over 30 proposals, many of which will have substantial impacts across sectors of the economy and our society. Proposals on charities reform, a ban on gay conversion therapy, on transport, defence and R&D are all important chances for the Government to guide and remodel the Covid recovery. How well the Government will deliver on them, and the efficacy of those policies in action, is another matter.
There are equally notable omissions – on consumer protection and audit reform in particular, and also on rental reforms – early casualties to capacity and focus pressures
As with all agendas – this programme is aspirational, and there’s a big question mark over how much of the Government’s proposals will make it through Parliament. Given its majority, that’s perhaps less of a risk than it has been in recent years, but the Government also faces strategic and organisational challenges that could frustrate its own plans to deliver its agenda. Much has already been made of “levelling up” on lacking firm details, but new structures focussed on getting things done – like a resurrected Delivery Unit at No10 – may help with that.
The other elephant in the room is cost – with a delayed Comprehensive Spending Review still on the cards to re-orientate spending post-Covid, there is the ever present danger (particularly on some of the more voter-friendly tax cuts and capital investments) that real-politick will see some elements of the agenda backed to the finish, and others quietly dropped. Of course, all of this is set against the background of a pandemic that, though receding in the UK, cannot be guaranteed not to throw a spanner in the works – and the PM may yet find his efforts undermined by that age-old political disruptor: events.