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King’s speech begins countdown to polls

Many Tory MPs gave the package of bills in the King’s Speech a lukewarm reception, while Downing Street was forced to put the brakes on controversial plans to crack down on rough sleeping…reports Asian Lite News

King Charles III started the countdown to the next UK election on Tuesday, setting out 21 pieces of legislation that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes to define his priorities and sharpen dividing lines with Labour.

But many Tory MPs gave the package of bills in the King’s Speech a lukewarm reception, while Downing Street was forced to put the brakes on controversial plans to crack down on rough sleeping.

The King’s Speech, the first delivered by a male monarch in more than 70 years, was laden with political intent as Sunak drafted a final legislative package to be delivered before an election expected by autumn 2024.

Measures to encourage North Sea oil drilling, tougher sentencing for serious criminals and bills designed to show support for Israel were all meant to signal Sunak’s priorities.

The main opposition Labour party said the government’s legislative package, formally set out by King Charles in the gilded splendour of the House of Lords, was “a pretty pathetic programme of tinkering”.

Even some ministers loyal to Sunak admitted that the programme was underwhelming and unlikely to transform a political landscape in which the Tories trail Labour by about 20 points in the polls.

One minister said: “I think there will be a moment when Rishi does some bold stuff and throws out some ‘red meat’, but this wasn’t that moment.” A former cabinet minister claimed the speech was “a series of gimmicks”.

Sunak, meanwhile, was forced to put on hold plans to publish a flagship criminal justice bill on Wednesday in the face of a furore over a proposed crackdown on rough sleeping.

A newspaper revealed last week that Suella Braverman, home secretary, wanted to fine charities that handed out tents to the homeless in cities. She then claimed that sleeping rough was “a lifestyle choice”.

That comment dismayed fellow ministers, and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Conservative party was “so devoid of leadership it is happy to follow a home secretary who describes homelessness as a lifestyle choice”.

Sunak’s aides said the Home Office had been asked to do more work on the policy. “There’s often some detail of bills that needs further work,” a Tory spokesman said.

The prime minister’s allies said the legislative package was “a stepping stone” towards the election. But Sunak is running out of set-piece opportunities to regain the initiative ahead of the poll.

His Tory conference relaunch last month, when he scrapped the northern leg of the HS2 rail line and promised a phased ban on smoking, failed to boost Conservative prospects.

The King’s Speech, a mixed bag of bills ranging from housing reform to a crackdown on London pedicabs, was another opportunity for Sunak to set his own agenda before the election.

After Tuesday’s pageantry, Sunak will have two big fiscal events — this month’s Autumn Statement and next spring’s Budget — to change the terms of political debate. A cabinet reshuffle is expected later this year.

King Charles, reading from a script prepared by Downing Street, said the government was making “the difficult but necessary long-term decisions to change this country for the better”.

The monarch, an ardent environmentalist, unveiled a bill to “support the future licensing of new oil and gasfields”, a policy opposed by Labour. Sunak said Starmer was pursuing the net zero target with “ideological zeal”.

A range of law and order measures were included to signal Sunak’s tough stance on crime, even if the overcrowded state of the UK’s prisons means that fewer people will go to jail for less serious offences.

Two bills to show support for Israel have been “rolled over” from the last parliamentary session: one will set up a Holocaust learning centre at Westminster, while the other will stop leftwing councils boycotting Israel with their own sanctions regimes.

An anti-tobacco bill will create a “smoke-free generation” by preventing anyone currently aged under 14 from ever being able to legally buy cigarettes, while reforms to the rental market and leasehold rules are also included.

An independent football regulator will be created to give fans a greater say in the running of English top-tier clubs, with a new licensing regime. The regulator will have powers to enforce compliance with financial regulations.

The investigatory powers amendment bill aims to “recalibrate” elements of the government’s current ability to access private communications and data from messaging companies and telecoms providers.

It mandates that companies inform the Home Office in advance about any security or privacy features they want to add to their platforms, including encryption.

The King travelled from Buckingham Palace to parliament in a horse-drawn carriage, arriving via the sovereign’s entrance, which is reserved for the monarch’s use, before proceeding to the throne in the House of Lords chamber. 

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