A Conservative Christmas: the beginning of Boris’ Britain

Despite it being just a fleeting nine weeks later, much has changed since the last time the Queen, and crown, arrived at the Palace of Westminster. Namely, a generation-changing election has delivered Boris Johnson an 80 seat majority government, and with it the power to finally cook his “oven-ready” Brexit deal.

As a defeated Jeremy Corbyn – who was this time without the support of Dennis Skinner’s heckles – walked in leading a depleted Labour Party, Johnson was ready to show the country his definition of Brexit Britain through a set of brand new bills.

If the election propaganda wasn’t enough to assure the public that Boris means Brexit, this week’s speech cemented once again to the public that the country is leaving the EU: “My Government’s priority is to deliver the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on 31 January.” Following the UK’s departure, the government “will seek a future relationship with the European Union based on a free trade agreement”, and “begin trade negotiations with other leading economies.” He had a new EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to prove it and replace the one he couldn’t get through Parliament just a few weeks ago. This is stripped of workers’ rights, apparently to be handled by other legislation, and most importability limits the transition period to get a trade deal after Brexit on 31st January 2020 to 11 months. So if anyone thought that fraught Brexit negotiations, deadlines and drama was behind us, sorry, but the rollercoaster ride goes on.

But, what was there beyond Brexit?

Firstly, there was the expected focus on NHS funding and the controversial points-based immigration system that will end free movement for EU citizens. Then the environment featured – although some may ask how willingly. The Tories promise a bill which “will enshrine in law environmental principles and legally-binding targets”, and Johnson will “also ban the export of polluting plastic waste to countries outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.”

Johnson promises that “the integrity and prosperity of the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance to my Government”, and follows this up with the pledge “to promote and expand the United Kingdom’s influence in the world.”

Keen to prove to the critics that his party works ‘for the many’, there was a promise to “support working families” through an increase in the National Living Wage. The Prime Minister will also be keen to highlight how he is “making homes available at a discount for local first-time buyers”, and increasing funding for each school pupil.

And, consistency was seen in the government’s commitment to law and order, which had previously dominated October’s Queen’s Speech, but now includes election issues that hadn’t been anticipated in the last one. This time, Johnson promised “New sentencing laws” which see longer custodial sentences for “the most serious violent offenders”.

The last Queen’s Speech was heavily criticised as wishful thinking, labelled as a preposterous ‘Christmas list’ by numerous journalists. But now, backed by his new 80 seat majority, will we perhaps see Johnson deliver the gifts he’s promised this December?

The proof is in the pudding

We look at a few points of interest, delving behind the headlines to see what a Conservative majority means for health, infrastructure, and rail. And, we’ve captured the all-important responses of industry experts too.

Funding the NHS

Politicians and the public were all awaiting the mention of the NHS in this speech. With the opposition’s campaign being spearheaded by the potential privatisation of the health service, this proved a critical moment for the Tories to mitigate concerns.

Again, we’ve seen that commitment for the Conservatives means a pledge of funds; “For the first time, the National Health Service’s multi-year funding settlement, agreed earlier this year, will be enshrined in law.” But while money talks for some, it seems inevitable that an injection of cash will fail to silence the critics concerned about the impacts of Brexit. The prime minister’s pledge to remove hospital car parking charges for “those in greatest need” is a hardy perennial but ticks a popular box, even if implementation details haven’t been worked out yet.

As the country gears up to leave the EU, Johnson is confident that the Australian-style “points-based immigration system” will enable hospitals to be sufficiently staffed: “Steps will be taken to grow and support the National Health Service’s workforce and a new visa will ensure qualified doctors, nurses and health professionals have fast-track entry to the United Kingdom.” However, even if international recruitment is made easier, it does not fix fundamental workforce shortages and doesn’t mean people will want to work in the UK when their skills are being competed for across the world.

The two poor relations of NHS hospital funding that makes all the headlines, Mental Health and Social Care, appeared loosely. “My ministers will continue work to reform the Mental Health Act,” read the Queen, but what visible results this aims to deliver remain unknown. We will also see a “cross-party consensus on how we tackle the adult social care crisis”, but, again, details were lacklustre. Johnson instead appeared to opt for pathos, pointing out that nobody ought to resort to selling “their home” to pay for care.

The responses from health experts all appear to show some level of concern.

In regards to the reform on social care, Cllr James Jamieson, of the Local Government Association, welcomed the government’s cross-party consensus but warned against the distraction of Brexit: “While much of the immediate business for the Government will be around Brexit, it should not delay in delivering a long-term funding solution which secures the future of adult social care.”

Nick Ville, Director of Policy at the NHS Confederation, shows similar anxieties, wondering if the government’s gung-ho enthusiasm for Brexit might mar the nation’s health: “Get Brexit done’ was Boris Johnson’s election campaign mantra but he must do this in a way that looks after the nation’s health and wellbeing.”

Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive at the Health Foundation, also stressed that “there is no time to waste” when it comes to social care reform; “Fundamental reform of social care should be the immediate priority – the government must now grasp the nettle.” And, in response to extra NHS funding, Dr Dixon remarks that it “falls short of what’s needed to maintain the existing quality of services, let alone modernise and improve care.”

Controlled infrastructure investment

This Queen’s Speech spoke of infrastructure in a rather different tone to October’s.

Just nine weeks ago, the Prime Minister powerfully stated that, “We are going to turbo-charge our country with one of the greatest eras of infrastructure investment in everything from rail to roads to gigabit broadband.” In comparison to that manifesto-style battle-cry, this week’s speech toned down the pomp. Whilst the promise of prosperity and investment “in the country’s public services and infrastructure” continued, Johnson was clear to assure the public that he has no ‘magic money tree’, as the Queen read that all “borrowing and debt” will be “under control.”

Again, Johnson tried to demonstrate he is a man of the people, if a vague one when it comes to infrastructure – “My Government will prioritise investment in infrastructure and world-leading science research and skills, in order to unleash productivity and improve daily life for communities across the country.”

Rail saw little attention in this speech – perhaps a result of the Conservative party’s split on major issues like HS2. There was however a new bill which will “provide for minimum levels of service during transport strikes.” This move might be popular with commuters, but it’s sure to rile up trade unions.

Josh Hardie, CBI Deputy Director-General, sounded optimistic in his reflection of the speech – despite his previous concerns that a no-deal Brexit “would set the country back.” This time around, Hardie suggested that business could still boom with Brexit; “The Queen’s Speech commitments to kick start the economy and deliver a Brexit that protects the prosperity of the whole of the UK can be a catalyst for rebuilding confidence and investment.” However, “to make 2020 the decade of delivery, this now needs to translate into bold action.”

The Railway Industry Association Chief Executive, Darren Caplan, was pleased to welcome, “the Government’s commitment announced today to significantly boosting infrastructure investment”, but urges the Prime Minister to “commit to other major rail infrastructure projects like Transpennine Route Upgrade, Crossrail 2, and a rolling programme of electrification”, a sensible response considering Johnson is keen to improve the daily life for communities across the UK.

Christmas future

Last Christmas was torrid for public policy and politics, paralysed by Brexit and austerity. This Christmas, politics is transformed and public policy is being quickly made to catch up. The Conservative’s huge majority means they can get their legislation passed, but politically it also means two new things. Firstly, where is its majority? In Labour’s old heartlands of the midlands and north. To keep those seats, the Conservatives will need new policies that appeal to labour voters once Brexit is in fact done. And, secondly, when Brexit is done, why vote Boris, if that is what his main appeal was? The next election in five years will be a long time after we are living with the consequences of Brexit, and governing competence and the quality of life and prosperity will be the everyday concerns. That’s a whole new politics we haven’t seen since austerity started. Christmas future is still anyone’s guess.