With crime in focus, UK’s Sunak sets out pre-election agenda in King’s Speech
By Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain’s government set out its plans to tackle crime, boost growth and water down climate change measures on Tuesday, an unashamedly political agenda that could be Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first and last King’s Speech before an election.
In an agenda written by the government but delivered by King Charles to lawmakers packed into parliament’s ornate House of Lords, Sunak signalled his intent to draw a dividing line with the opposition Labour Party before the vote expected next year.
With Labour running way ahead in the opinion polls, Sunak’s team is hoping that his agenda will close the gap by reducing what he says is the burden of Britain’s climate change targets on households and by toughening sentences for violent offenders.
There was little new in the King’s Speech, more a collection of what Sunak has worked on since becoming prime minister last year on a pledge to bring stability after two leaders of his Conservative party were forced from power in a matter of weeks.
“My government will, in all respects, seek to make long-term decisions in the interests of future generations,” Charles, wearing the Imperial State Crown and Robe of State, told a hushed audience of lawmakers in the upper house of parliament.
It was the first time Charles had made the speech as king – though he stood in for his mother Queen Elizabeth months before her death last year – in a ceremony marked by pomp and pageantry which also attracted a loud, if small, anti-monarchy protest outside parliament.
Arriving at parliament from Buckingham Palace in a grand carriage procession, he then led a ceremony, with some of its traditions traced back to the 16th century, that delivers the government’s agenda in line with Britain’s unusual constitutional division of executive powers.
The largely domestic focus of the plans Charles read out suggested Britain has already entered campaign season, with Labour, even before the speech was made, saying the Conservatives offered “only gimmicks, division and more of the same”.
Addressing parliament at the opening of its new session, Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the Conservatives of using the speech to try to save their “own skin”, describing it as a day “when it became crystal clear that the change Britain needs is from Tory (Conservative) decline to Labour renewal”.
In the King’s Speech, the government signalled it would move ahead with the Sentencing Bill that will bring forward tougher jail sentences for the most serious offenders, and repeated its pledge to boost economic growth and reduce inflation.
But, in a possible sign that calls from some Conservative lawmakers to offer voters tax cuts will go unheeded, the king said: “My ministers will address inflation and the drivers of low growth over demands for greater spending or borrowing.”
Reading some of the government’s climate policies might have jarred with Charles, who has campaigned on environmental issues for more than 50 years. The government has already moved to delay a ban on sales of new petrol cars, but officials have repeatedly said ministers were not giving up on the overall targets, just being more “pragmatic” in how they get there.
Sunak confirmed in an introduction to the speech he would bring in legislation to hold North Sea oil and gas licensing rounds annually – something Labour has ruled out – to help “the country to transition to net zero by 2050 without adding undue burdens on households”.
That was one of only two new bills expected to be presented to the House of Commons this week, with the remainder being legislative plans rolled over from the previous parliament.
Sunak’s government plans to phase out tobacco sales to young people in England and, in an attempt to win over younger voters, press ahead with reforms to the housing market, outlawing no-fault evictions for renters.
But Sunak faces an uphill struggle to win back voters, with Labour holding an around 20-point lead in the polls. His party is mired in allegations of sex scandals, under scrutiny over its actions during the COVID-19 pandemic and deeply divided over its strategy before the next election.
He is hopeful his agenda can turn things around.
“We have turned the corner over the last year and put the country on a better path,” Sunak said in his introduction.
“But these immediate priorities are not the limit of our ambition. They are just the foundations of our plan to build a better future for our children and grandchildren, and deliver the change the country needs.”
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Andrew MacAskill, additional reporting by Alistair Smout, Kylie MacLellan, Paul Sandle, Sarah Young, Kate Holton; Editing by Alex Richardson, Jon Boyle and Christina Fincher)
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