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LONDON – You’re an environmentally friendly royal who has waited 74 years to give his big speech to Parliament.
Then your Prime Minister ruins it all by putting his anti-environmental agenda in the middle of it.
Expect a critical moment for King Charles III on Tuesday when he opens a new British parliamentary session by reading out Rishi Sunak’s legislative program for this year – complete with a major push for the fossil fuel industry.
The King’s Speech – Charles’s first as head of state – is a fixture of the UK’s political calendar, a moment of great pomp starring a monarch constitutionally bound to remain above fray.
But with a general election looming and Sunak struggling in the polls, this year’s speech offers the prime minister an irresistible opportunity to spell out his differences with the opposition Labor Party and show his shrinking Conservative MPs that he has a plan to turn things around.
This means that Charles – who has spent his life warning about climate change – will have to formally announce the Prime Minister’s highly politicized pledge to grant new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea every year.
Tory aides are spying an opportunity to criticize Labor – which has pledged to oppose new oil and gas exploration – on energy security grounds, painting the opposition party as anti-jobs.
“It’s good policy and it will be quite political and highlights our dividing lines with the Labor Party,” said one government official who worked closely on the speech, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Others are preparing for at least some sideways glances from the king, who heads to the UN climate conference COP28 later this month.
“I think if he’s reading something he doesn’t like – even if he thinks it’s entirely appropriate for him to read it – there’s probably going to be some kind of raised eyebrow, a little bit of a cough or a little bit of coughing,” Ed Balls, Labour’s former shadow chancellor, said last week. “The downtime is too high.”
Although the King’s Speech is written by the government of the day, tradition holds that it is read by the King, wearing a crown and sitting on a golden throne in the House of Lords.
Tuesday marks the first time that King Charles has read the speech as king following the death of his mother last September. Queen Elizabeth II’s political views were not publicly known, and she was only 25 years old when she assumed the role.
However, her son spent many years campaigning on environmental issues before ascending to the throne, publicly expressing concerns about the climate as early as the 1970s.
But his new role as king means he now has to be completely neutral when it comes to politics.
Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift, a campaign group pushing to end the use of fossil fuels, believes the speech could put the king in a “diplomatically difficult position” at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), where “the phase-out of fuels appears Carbon dense” with the appearance of a true flash point.
Speaking on Politico’s ‘Politics of Jack and Sam’ programme, Alastair Bruce, the royal commentator who will play a ceremonial role on the occasion, said people would undoubtedly “read this into irony” if the speech included bills that contradicted Charles’ speech. Views previously expressed.
But he insisted that the king would do his duty, and “will try to present an unwavering voice when he delivers everything that is required of him.”
Sunak’s spokesman said on Monday that he was not concerned about the king’s reaction to the speech, and that he was following a “long-term process”. He stressed that ministers still intend to achieve their 2050 target of reducing net carbon emissions to zero, but will do so in a “practical” way that does not burden households.
Let’s get political
However, royal muttering may be the least of Sunak’s worries.
The Prime Minister has limited time left to challenge the polls and make a provocative case for why the British public should give the Conservatives a fifth term in office. The next general elections must be held before the end of January 2025.
Sunak also has limited fiscal room for manoeuvre, meaning his policies will have to be popular and cheap.
Plans to phase out all legal tobacco sales in England, introduce a proposed new football regulator and reform leasehold ownership – all expected in Tuesday’s speech – are relatively cost-free. Crime and punishment laws are also expected to emerge populist.
However, Tory MPs and parliamentary candidates – whose careers now hang in the balance – are concerned that the Sunak administration is simply messing with its political agenda.
“We really need something strong that we can shout about on the doorstep,” said one Tory candidate, sitting in one of the key target seats, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly.
A pro-Sunak minister noted that the policies were “popular”, but “the problem is that there is no real narrative thread tying them together that we can come up with and sell to voters”.
James Frayne, a former Tory adviser who now runs the polling and research agency Public First, is also skeptical that Sunak is striking a chord with the public.
“[Last month’s] “The party conference was very strange as the party seemed to think things went well, but they only addressed the public on trivial matters,” he said. “They barely talked about things like the cost of living, health services or crime – things that people are obsessed with.”
“hostage of wealth”
Against this background, the government’s omissions – things that King Charles did not say on Tuesday – will also matter.
MPs have been told that a long-promised ban on “conversion therapy” – the practice of trying to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity – will now not take the form of a bill, and will instead only be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny.
While this may avoid a parliamentary showdown, it has sparked some backlash from senior Conservatives, with former minister Dehina Davison describing the delay as “shameful”.
However, Sunak has little time left for parliamentary drama.
“They don’t want a lot of parliamentary moments, because a lot of MPs in marginal seats will want to stay away from Westminster campaigning,” said Robert Buckland, a former Cabinet minister.
If Sunak calls an early election in the spring rather than waiting until later in the year, many of the proposed laws will have to be abandoned anyway, a Downing Street aide – who was not authorized to speak publicly – suggested.
Despite the parlous polls, MPs and Tory aides insist they have not panicked yet.
The same British government official quoted above sees Tuesday’s speech as just one of a series of key moments over the remainder of 2023. Also coming is the Autumn Statement – a fiscal moment when Sunak’s team can make big tax and public spending decisions – a cabinet reshuffle; A momentous ruling by the Supreme Court on the legality of the government’s key asylum policy.
Buckland says the state opening does not traditionally “move the dial” – but he believes it will form part of a cumulative shift to a steadier ship under Sunak’s leadership.
“The most he can hope for is that this is a king’s speech that doesn’t get in the way, doesn’t create a lot of contradictory messages, or hostages of fortune, which is something he can’t afford in a year when people want to be focused.” On choice [between him and the opposition]Buckland said.
And on Tuesday, a deadpan King Charles may help him do just that.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting
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