A strong showing in the local elections for the Conservative Party and the announcement that England can move to the next stage of lockdown easing set the scene for this year’s Queen’s Speech on 11 May – marking the State Opening of Parliament and setting out the Government’s legislative agenda for the Parliamentary session ahead.
It therefore was not a surprise to see Prime Minister Boris Johnson looking jubilant while the Queen read out the key Bills his government will bring forward this session. Whilst the agenda is relatively ambitious in terms of the number of Bills – 30 this year compared to 22 and 26 Bills in the two Queen’s Speeches in 2019 – the Opposition have been quick to criticise the Government for a perceived lack of ambition in terms of what it sets out to achieve with this legislative agenda.
This may not be without merit. Of the flagship Bills announced, the Environment Bill – important to signal the Government’s green credentials ahead of COP26 later this year – was actually introduced in the previous session and has been carried over. The Planning Bill, set to make the planning system faster, simpler, and more modern, has attracted early criticism from Conservative backbenchers, who are concerned it will lead to a free for all for developers and ignore local views, whilst the property sector remains underwhelmed. And the Online Safety Bill, which has been in the works for nearly two years, is still only in draft form, yet to undergo its pre-legislative scrutiny stage.
One area where the Government is certainly not without ambition is its proposals for constitutional reform. Of these, perhaps the most significant in terms of shaping the political landscape in the years ahead is the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) 2011, which requires a majority of two thirds of MPs to call an early election.
Instead, this proposed legislation reinstates the previous constitutional principle that the Government of the day has the confidence of parliament and can seek a fresh democratic mandate when it is needed.
This may not be controversial in and of itself: there has been broad agreement that the FTPA is significantly flawed after early elections in 2017 and 2019 proved both that snap elections remained a feature of the UK political landscape and that the Government of the day could override the FTPA if needed. But allowing the Government to call a general election at the time of their choosing naturally opens us up to speculation around when the next election will be.
Spring 2023 now looks to be most likely. This date is compelling for the Government for three main reasons: the first is that the Government could stretch to this point without making significant tax changes to start recovering the debt accrued during the Coronavirus crisis. It is never a good idea for a government to hike taxes just before an election, so if this Government can avoid it, they will. Secondly, the Scottish election results have allowed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to claim that the matter of a second referendum is “when not if”. She has reiterated her aim to hold this by the end of 2023, but a general election the same year may scupper this plan. And lastly, the timing may prove to work well in terms of the economic recovery following COVID-19. Johnson has certainly benefited from a ‘vaccine bounce’ in the polls and will hope that by 2023 the country has moved significantly forward in both its health and economic recovery under his leadership, whilst of course avoiding giving Labour the time to start winning back votes.
For public affairs professionals, spring 2023 still feels some way off. But if we do see the next election around that time, it may mean that this parliamentary session is increasingly important in delivering a period of focus for MPs in Westminster before the priority turns back to fighting for their seats.
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