Jeremy Hunt might as well not have bothered turning up for the King’s Speech. Businesspeople could have skipped it too. The vast number of Britons who are still suffering the effects of the cost-of-living crisis need not have paid any attention to it. What Rishi Sunak gave King Charles to read out did not seem to point to a single piece of significant economic or business-related legislation ahead.
Even well-publicised plans by the chancellor to “unlock” £50 billion of pension fund investment were not mentioned. Apparently, it is no longer a priority for this government. Nor did the King’s Speech show that HM Treasury has any plans to legislate on a whole host of areas that desperately need reform.
In part, this is doubtless the chancellor keeping his powder dry for the Autumn Statement on November 22. But the silence still speaks volumes. This government is totally bereft of new ideas. No wonder Keir Starmer was able to paint the Conservatives as a party of “low growth, high tax and crumbling public services, with the prime minister serving up more of the same.”
Assuming there are some big announcements on tax and duties to come in the Autumn Statement, what could Sunak have tackled this time?
For start, the apprenticeship system which the prime minister mystifyingly lauded in his own speech on Wednesday has been a complete failure for the last seven years, after it was reformed in such an appallingly stupid way that the country now has hundreds of thousands fewer highly skilled workers than it should have. Improving matters wouldn’t cost a penny. The money already exists, it is just spent badly.
British business has been calling for an industrial strategy, any industrial strategy for years now. Again, it has been left empty-handed. Perhaps that is for the best, because one of the sectors that is obviously in need of a strategy is green energy and environmental improvements.
But when the government reverses its plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars, starts pumping oil and gas and lies about a meat tax, it is perhaps better that industry wait for a strategy from a new government that knows where it is going, because this one obviously doesn’t.
The fact that people are living on the streets in tents is a direct consequence of not building enough homes for years. HS2 has been cancelled, with any new transport infrastructure years away. The UK is far behind Europe and the USA in its electric car battery production plans. Millions of homes need insulating, the water industry is a scandal and the National Grid needs completely reforming. Meanwhile, whole industries are crying out for more immigration to fill staff shortages and grow the economy.
But the King’s Speech seems to have nothing to say on these and a dozen other matters.
Even the plan to set up a new body, Great British Railways, to run the whole train network is only in draft form, it is unlikely therefore to make it into law by the time of the election.
This is all very strange. Sunak is not a stupid man – he must know that the future of the country is totally dependent on reigniting growth, and improving productivity.
Between now and the possible date for the next election he also knows that he will be lucky if the country avoids a recession and the best that can be hoped for is another year of low, unimpressive growth, bumping along the bottom.
But if he wants to convince voters that he has a plan, that he is putting in place the measures to boost recovery, hard-wire in growth, reform the economy and that he is the politician with a plan to “change” things, then he needs some policies.
At the moment he doesn’t seem to have any at all.
You can read more from Jonty in Jonty’s Jottings on Substack