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King's Speech: a changing of the guard

King's Speech 2023
By Chris White
07 November 2023
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The sight of King Charles delivering the first King’s Speech in seventy years was a moment to pause and take stock. Symbolically it was the first time the King has taken the State Opening as the reigning monarch, and it felt like a changing of the guard.

Watching him deliver the speech, written of course by the incumbent government, there was an interesting tension as he delivered a number of commitments on the environment that privately he may well disagree with, such as the plans for new oil and gas exploration.

That announcement was one of several trailed for weeks as part of a ‘make-or-break’ moment for the government, a chance to reset the agenda with the Conservatives a consistent 20 points behind in the polls.

The Conservative conference was one of those key autumn moments, the King’s Speech the second, and both saw the PM try a new tactic, designed to show that the Conservatives are taking the difficult decisions the country needs. The King’s Speech used the phrase ‘long-term’ eight times, an echo of the ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future’ slogan used at the Conservative party conference.

However, simply repeating ‘long-term’ doesn’t make a coherent message that will sell on the doorstep. The problem with the Conservative conference is that the key policy announcements – the lifetime ban on smoking for anyone aged under 14, the scrapping of HS2 and the reform of A-levels – were all disconnected with each other and hard to package.

The same remains true of this King’s Speech.  There were 21 bills announced in the Speech, 16 of which made it into the text. There were highlights, such as the focus on criminal justice, where the government is determined to draw a clear dividing line with Labour in an attempt to shore up it’s right wing. Labour would question this, pointing at it’s record on prisons and courts, but criminal justice is an important driver of voting Conservative in the Red Wall seats.

Equally, there is new regulation on tech, designed to strengthen consumer rights online and tackle fake reviews. There will be a new autonomous vehicle bill to set the framework for self-driving cars.

Yet for all these worthy pieces of legislation, there was no theme or thread to them. Downing Street were quick to point out that this was the intention – government making decisions for the long-term, tackling the structural issues that matter. However, it will prove a hard sell on the doorstep for the party’s MPs in the run up to the next general election. 

Of course, the actual measures announced by the King are hardly brand new, and perhaps that’s why they felt underwhelming and a missed opportunity. Many of these bills are policy proposals that have been long promised.  Some of the plans being promoted, such as new rights for victims of crime and restrictions on marriage for whole life killers, are in fact already in legislation before Parliament. Others, as is the way with detailed legislation, have been in the works for months. Even if the government wanted it to be a reset moment, it is unlikely that it could ever have been so. 

In a year’s time we may look back at this King’s Speech as the moment where it was not only a changing of the guard for the new monarch, but the beginning of the end for this Conservative government. 

Read more in our full briefing here.