Sunak Aims to Trap Labour With Election-Geared King’s Speech

(Bloomberg) -- King Charles III will be doing more than setting out the UK government’s legislative agenda at the opening of Parliament on Tuesday. The 74-year-old monarch will be effectively launching Rishi Sunak’s bid to keep his Conservative Party in power at a general election expected next year.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Trailing Keir Starmer’s Labour Party by about 20 points in opinion polls, the King’s Speech is one of the biggest remaining chances for Sunak to convince voters he is pursuing policies they want. Crime, energy and housing are expected to feature heavily as he tries to get Labour on the back foot.

Violent criminals will be locked up for longer, offenders will be forced to appear in court for sentencing, and police will get extra powers to tackle “everyday” crime and antisocial behavior, Sunak’s office said late Monday. The move is aimed at restoring the governing Conservative Party’s claim to be tough on crime, but without wider reform of clogged-up courts and overcrowded prisons, it is unlikely to lead to fundamental change in the criminal justice system.

The government also plans to mandate annual licensing rounds for North Sea oil and gas, which it says will give certainty to investors, protect jobs, and reduce reliance on “hostile states” for energy. It also creates a clear dividing line with Labour, which has pledged to ban new licenses to focus on renewable energy.

The plan fits Sunak’s recent loosening of green and environmental policies, which is calculated to appeal to voters by presenting the government as easing the financial burden during a cost-of-living crisis. The prime minister’s office said in an emailed statement the plan would ultimately lead to a more diverse energy mix and “help to lower household bills in the long-term.”

Read more: Sunak Toned Down North Sea Oil and Gas Plans After Legal Advice

But that is disputed, especially as North Sea oil and gas resources are mostly tapped out and production has steadily declined since its peak more than 20 years ago. Energy and Net Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho told the BBC on Monday the policy wouldn’t “necessarily bring energy bills down.”

The government has been “reduced to embarrassing political stunts,” was how Coutinho’s Labour counterpart, Ed Miliband, described it on X, formerly Twitter. It could also be awkward for King Charles, a keen environmentalist.

Meanwhile senior figures in Sunak’s administration spent the weekend setting the political tone for the King’s Speech, even if not all measures they set out are confirmed to have made the final cut.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman triggered anger, including in the Conservative Party, when she said she wants to restrict the use of tents by homeless people as part of a wider crime crackdown, saying there are people, “many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice.”

Her comments play to her political base on the right of the Tory party, which typically argues that the UK suffers from excessive immigration and that the state spends too much on welfare benefits and measures to support the poor. Sunak declined to criticize Braverman when asked by reporters on Monday, saying only that he doesn’t “want anyone to sleep rough on our streets.”

The government also leaned into the row over the pro-Palestinian protests that have taken place in London and other UK cities on recent Saturdays. Braverman called the events “hate marches” while Sunak said plans to hold protests on Armistice Day were “provocative and disrespectful” and that he would support the police if they pushed for them to be banned.

That’s despite organizers pledging not to disrupt official events to mark the end of World War I or to go near the Cenotaph, the war memorial in central London.

Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, also confirmed Monday the government is looking at redefining “extremism” in the UK, though he declined to comment on an Observer newspaper report that officials want it to include anyone who undermines the country’s institutions and values.

Other plans potentially in the King’s Speech include:

  • Reform of leasehold laws in England and Wales which aims to ban leaseholds for new houses, but not necessarily new flats.

  • A package of measures to tackle crime and toughen prison sentences, including mandatory jail terms for repeat offenders of crimes such as shoplifting and burglary.

  • Setting up a new football regulator to ensure clubs can demonstrate sound finances, and with powers to stop clubs joining breakaway leagues.

  • A gradual rise in the legal age for smoking cigarettes — a promise Sunak made during his speech to his party’s annual conference.

The King’s Speech, which kickstarts the new parliamentary session, is one of the dwindling number of set piece events for Sunak to try to wrestle back some momentum from Labour. There’s also the fiscal statement on Nov. 22, while he’s widely expected to shuffle his top team of ministers in the coming weeks.

A budget in the spring could be the last major intervention before a general election, which must be called by January 2025 but people familiar with the matter have said is planned for autumn 2024.

The King’s Speech will also be scrutinized for what’s not included. Plans to relax “nutrient neutrality” laws inherited from the European Union in order to boost housebuilding have been put on the back burner after opposition from the House of Lords. A planned shake-up of the UK’s audit and corporate governance regime are also unlikely to be included, according to the Financial Times.

“The Tories can’t fix the country because they’ve already failed,” Starmer said in an emailed statement. “With a legacy of stagnant growth, sky-rocketing mortgages, soaring prices and crumbling schools and hospitals, Rishi Sunak admits the country needs to change; but this government cannot deliver it.”

--With assistance from Joe Mayes, Kitty Donaldson and Ellen Milligan.

(Updates with crime announcement in third paragraph, Starmer comment in final)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.