British government returns to 2019 pledges after election setback

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has returned to his election pledges to tackle regional inequalities and maximise post-Brexit freedoms, hoping to win back voters in southern England who abandoned his party at local polls last week.

In the traditional Queen’s Speech, read for the first time in 59 years by Prince Charles rather than Queen Elizabeth due to her mobility problems, Johnson said on Tuesday that his Conservative government would “deliver on the promises we made” in the 2019 election.

But there was little to comfort the millions of people struggling with higher fuel and food costs, with the government reiterating that it would “repair the public finances” rather than channel money to cushion the blow.

“Her Majesty’s government’s priority is to grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families. Her Majesty’s government will level up opportunity in all parts of the country and support more people into work,” Charles said, reading a text written by the government before assembled members and peers.

“Her Majesty’s government will drive economic growth to improve living standards and fund sustainable investment in public services. This will be underpinned by a responsible approach to the public finances, reducing debt while reforming and cutting taxes.”

Charles, Queen Elizabeth’s heir, was drafted in after Buckingham Palace said on Monday that the 96-year-old monarch was experiencing “episodic mobility problems” and had reluctantly decided she could not attend.

Prince Charles, left, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, centre, follow behind the Imperial State Crown in the House of Lords Chamber during the State Opening of Parliament [Ben Stansall/Pool/AFP]

The Queen’s Speech set out 38 bills, including measures to revitalise Britain’s high streets, a crackdown on illicit finance and make the City, London’s financial district, more attractive to global investors after the country left the European Union.

In an introduction to the government’s legislative programme, Johnson said: “This is a Queen’s Speech to get our country back on track and ensure that we deliver on the promises we made at the start of this parliament.”

“While we must keep our public finances on a sustainable footing – and we cannot completely shield people from the fallout from global events – where we can help, we will.”

‘Real issues’

Johnson and his government are keen to return the focus on what they call the “real issues” and turn the page on scandals after months of reports of COVID-19 lockdown-busting gatherings at the prime minister’s Downing Street office and residence.

After Johnson and his finance minister, Rishi Sunak, were handed fines for one such gathering, Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, stepped up the pressure when he pledged to resign if police found he had also broken the rules.

Neither Johnson nor Sunak have stepped down, and Downing Street is still awaiting the results of a police investigation into other gatherings.

Johnson is also under pressure to tackle a growing cost-of-living crisis, but the Queen’s Speech offered no clues on any immediate actions the government might take to help people struggling to pay their bills.

The Bank of England said last week Britain risks a double-whammy of a recession and inflation above 10 percent.

Johnson was punished in last week’s local elections, when voters in southern England abandoned his party over the scandals and the cost of living.

This prompted some in his party to urge Johnson to return to a more traditional Conservative agenda of tax cuts and preventing housing from encroaching on rural areas.

With his critics falling short of the numbers needed within the governing party to try to remove him, Johnson is hoping he can double down on an agenda he believes won him a large majority in the 2019 national election.

“From the moment I became prime minister, my mission has been to deliver for the British people,” he said in the introduction to the agenda.

“Over the remainder of this Parliament, this government will work night and day to ensure we do just that.”

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