As prime minister, Boris Johnson does not follow the normal rules. To put it mildly. And this year’s Queen’s Speech, announcing his legislative programme for the coming parliamentary session, is no exception. That’s because probably the most important piece of planned legislation, a new law to waive parts of the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, is not mentioned, even though it almost certainly will be announced at the end of this week (and by the Prime Minister).
The reason this matters is because there is a constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland following last week’s elections to its Assembly. The runners up in the election, the unionist DUP, won’t allow the NI executive or government to be formed unless and until the Protocol is binned.
Johnson is planning to say, as I understand it, that the UK government will use powers in legislation to breach its treaty obligations under the NI Protocol. It will suspend all those border checks on goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland which were such an important part of its Brexit deal with the EU. But he’ll announce all of that on Friday, not today.
He knows that the moment he makes the announcement, there’ll be an almighty row with Brussels, Dublin and Washington, and presumably he’d rather it didn’t overshadow today’s unveiling of all the other laws that he plans. But the mega row is coming. For the nostalgic among you, it’ll feel like Brexit wars all over again. Gawd love us. As for what Prince Charles – standing in for the Queen – does presage, it’s all pretty much the programme that has been prepared and trailed in the Tory manifesto and subsequently.
There are no surprises in it all, though (perhaps it’s me) I didn’t expect a bill to facilitate genetic engineering of crops and livestock. This disproves the conceit that somehow the PM’s spouse, Carrie Johnson, is the real power in the government. Environmentalists like her don’t tend to approve of what used to be called Frankenstein food (and the ban she allegedly favoured on cruelly produced foods like Foie Gras is nowhere to be seen).
It is also striking that there is nothing that provides immediate relief from two clear and present dangers, namely the soaring cost of living and the threat from Putin. To be clear, there are measures which the PM hopes will help with his cherished ambitions of ‘levelling up’ – reducing inequalities – and creating more ‘high-wage, high-skill’ jobs.
But most of these can’t yield benefits for many years, because they’re structural: investment in skills and infrastructure, improving school standards, modernising the rules of public sector broadcasting, using Brexit freedoms to tailor regulation more to the UK’s needs, reforming data protection, and so on.
There’ll be rows in coming months, over whether plans to speed up the scrapping of EU rules deprives MPs of proper scrutiny over the replacement regulations or whether the privatisation of Channel 4 will damage the creative industries. Rows over whether it’s really appropriate to extend the life of the energy price-cap system rather than scrap it, whether the police really need powers to stop protestors gluing themselves to roads or whether levelling-up funds for local communities are pork barrel politics and de facto bribes to red-wall Tory MPs and voters will also ensue.
So there’s meat, or substance, or whatever you wish to call it. And there’s a Johnsonian flavour, with ammunition for culture wars – such as restrictions on public bodies like universities adopting boycotts on countries such as Israel – and for restarting Brexit battles.
But there’s no programme as radical or powerful as the Thatcher or Blair/Brown structural reforms that seems likely to jolt the UK out of the anticipated economic stagnation of the next few years. Or if such a Johnsonian programme exists, it’s been cleverly disguised.
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