Everything’s coming up Boris. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A week after carrying the Conservative Party to its biggest election victory since 1987, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled an ambitious agenda on Thursday at the formal opening of Parliament, promising to deliver Brexit on time and forge ahead with a “radical” domestic program he described as a “blueprint for the future of Britain” — which he aims to lead for the next decade.
The Queen’s Speech, a quaint formality in which Queen Elizabeth II formally introduces a government’s plans through an address written by the Cabinet, included over 30 pieces of legislation. Seven of these were related to Brexit, starting with the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which Parliament will vote on to fulfill Johnson’s pledge to “get the Brexit vote wrapped up for Christmas.” Downing Street revealed on Wednesday that the bill will give British judges a freer hand to deviate from past rulings of the European Court of Justice, which are to be incorporated into U.K. case law after Brexit. Trade unions fear this will result in the weakening of workers’ rights established in European rules.
The other Brexit-related legislation announced Thursday includes five laws disentangling the U.K. from E.U. regulations on trade, agriculture, fisheries, and financial services; another providing a framework for resolving international legal disputes involving private individuals and entities; and, perhaps most importantly, an overhaul of the U.K.’s immigration system. Johnson has proposed a points-based immigration scheme similar to the one used in Australia, in which applicants are rated on the basis of their skills, education, and whether their talents are needed in the U.K. Business leaders have expressed concern that the new system will prevent British companies from filling labor shortages, particularly in less specialized roles. The National Health Service, for example, relies heavily on foreign workers, and while doctors and nurses will still be able to come to the U.K. under Johnson’s plan, other essential support staff may not.
Johnson successfully campaigned on a promise to “Get Brexit Done” by the current (several times extended) deadline of January 31. To underscore the seriousness of this intent, the government plans to shut down the Department for Exiting the European Union in January and will soon stop using the word “Brexit” in official documents.
Thanks to his 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, the prime minister had no trouble passing the implementing legislation for his Brexit deal on Friday. The U.K.’s formal exit from the European Union, however, will start another timer for his government to negotiate a permanent trade deal with the E.U. If no deal is reached by the end of next year, the U.K. will suddenly revert to trading with the bloc under World Trade Organization rules — a cliff-edge crashout scenario similar to would happen if there had been no Brexit deal at all.
Johnson on Thursday said he would not extend that deadline. He expressed confidence that he could work out a good arrangement with Brussels within the year, while also pursuing new trade deals with other countries, most notably the United States. So confident is Johnson in his ability to get those deals done that his Withdrawal Agreement Bill explicitly rules out an extension of the trade-talks deadline. This is meant to prevent anti-Brexit factions in London and Brussels from effectively delaying Brexit further by drawing out the transition period, but also to put pressure on the E.U. negotiators to offer Britain a good deal, as failure to reach an agreement would be damaging to Europe as well. In a CNN interview on Wednesday, however, former PM Tony Blair warned that Johnson would likely find it very difficult to reach a deal within a year, “unless he’s prepared to make a lot of concessions to Europe.”
Beyond Brexit, the main feature of the Queen’s Speech is a plan to enshrine in law a commitment to increase the funding of the NHS by £33.9 billion per year by 2023–24 — a symbolic departure from the Tories’ belt-tightening platform of the past decade, but still less than the opposition Labour Party says the system needs to recover from the impact of previous Conservative governments’ austerity measures. The NHS bill is the centerpiece of a populist program Johnson is offering to pay back the Brexit-supporting working-class voters of northern England’s industrial towns, who bucked their longtime allegiance to Labour to back him in this election.
Along those lines, Johnson’s agenda also includes some new funds for the social-care system, new schools and hospitals, infrastructure upgrades, tax relief for small retailers, an increase in the national living wage, and an employment law that will give workers some new rights and protections. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn commented that many of Johnson’s plans included the “language of Labour policy but without the substance,” while other Labour politicians criticized his promises as empty and vague. Labour campaigned unsuccessfully in this election against Johnson’s vision of Brexit, which they warned would do away with decades of advances in workers’ rights derived from European law. Notably, Johnson’s employment bill says nothing about protecting these rights, which many members of his party would like to repeal.
Additionally, Johnson’s government is proposing a raft of “law and order” legislation: increasing maximum sentences for violent crimes and terrorist acts (as well as for violating deportation orders), recruiting thousands of new police officers, and giving the police new powers and legal protections. It also wants to update the U.K.’s espionage laws to reflect the realities of the digital age and bring them more in line with those of other countries like the U.S., which critics fear could result in a drastic expansion of state surveillance power and reduced accountability. Also of concern to human-rights advocates is a proposal to consider “updating treason laws.”
And, of course, no right-wing domestic agenda today would be complete without a plan to “stop public institutions from imposing their own approach or views about international relations, through preventing boycotts, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries and those who trade with them” — a proposal that, though worded generally, is clearly aimed at universities with regard to Israel — and, of course, a voter ID law.
Furthermore, Johnson is proposing major constitutional reforms that his opponents fear will be used to give the Tories an upper hand. He intends to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which prevents him from calling an election without Parliament’s permission, and to establish a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” to “consider the relationship between Government, Parliament, and the courts and to explore whether the checks and balances in our constitution are working for everyone.” Coming from Johnson, who unsuccessfully attempted to run roughshod over the other branches of government to muscle his Brexit deal through Parliament earlier this year, it’s not hard to guess who he thinks these checks and balances aren’t “working for.”
Finally, the Queen’s Speech included an extensive argument against holding another referendum on Scottish independence next year, saying this “would be a damaging distraction” and “would undermine the decisive result of the 2014 referendum and the promise made to the Scottish people that it was a once-in-a-generation vote.” That section of the speech was aimed at Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, who has vowed to seek another referendum with or without London’s blessing. The SNP won 48 of Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats in last week’s election.
Again, his commanding victory last week means Johnson will have little trouble enacting his legislative agenda (his proposed constitutional reforms, if too flagrantly self-serving, might be a little harder to pull off). With a solid majority in Parliament, he can pass legislation even while losing a few Tory MPs here and there. The question remains whether Johnson will tack toward the center and sell out his party’s right flank, or whether his embrace of ugly, right-wing revanchist nationalism proves genuine and he decides to play all his Trump cards instead. For anyone hoping that Johnson would govern as a moderate, the Queen’s Speech does not bode well.