King Charles III gave his first speech today as monarch to mark the start of the parliamentary year – parts of which will have been made through gritted teeth – as he laid out the government’s priorities for the months ahead. 

After paying tribute to his “darling mother”, he outlined 21 laws that ministers intend to pass in the next year-long session of parliament before the general election. 

While this high pomp event is known as the King’s speech, it is written by the government. Whatever his private feeling, the monarch is constitutionally obliged to remain above the fray, meaning it must always be delivered in as neutral a tone as possible.

The King stuck to the brief. Though the irony escaped nobody that a monarch who has dedicated much of his life to championing environmental causes gave a speech in which perhaps the most eye-catching announcement was a plan to double down on oil and gas expansion. Under the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, licences for oil and gas projects in the North Sea will be awarded annually, confirmed the lapsed eco-warrior. This, he added, will allow the UK to transition to net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 “without adding undue burdens on households.”

The monarch also mentioned measures that will explicitly favour motorists, such as plans to limit the ability of councils in England to impose clean air zone schemes or introduce 20mph zones. Much like with the new oil and gas licenses, these pro-car policies are an attempt to open up a clear divide with Labour by sidelining green issues

Criminal justice was also at the heart of the speech. A new Sentencing Bill will require whole-life sentences for the worst murders while a Criminal Justice Bill will give judges powers to force offenders to attend their own sentencing hearings. The latter is thought to be partly a response to baby killer and nurse Lucy Letby’s refusal to leave her cell for her hearing. 

Matters related to events unfolding in the Middle East also featured in the speech. A bill will ban public bodies from boycotting Israel while another will enable a Holocaust memorial to be built in Victoria Tower Gardens, near the Houses of Parliament. The existing Terrorism (Protection of Premises) Bill will also deliver Martyn’s law. Named after a victim of the Manchester Arena bombing, this legislation would require UK venues and local authorities to draw up preventative plans for terrorism – a timely measure with the terror threat on the rise.

The King also elaborated on Sunak’s ambition to create a smoke-free generation. Crucially, alongside a phased ban on smoking for those born from 2009 onwards, the government is planning to crackdown on vaping too. This latter measure will divide opinion. On the one hand, the long-term effects of e-cigarettes are not yet known and it is vaping, not smoking, that is vastly on the rise among young people, making it a priority. On the other hand, e-cigarettes have proven to be an important tool to get people to quit smoking. 

The monarch also announced plans to reform what Michael Gove has described as Britain’s “feudal” leasehold system. A bill will ban leaseholds for new houses, but not new flats, in England and Wales, and it will substantially increase the standard lease extension period from 99 to 990 years.  While such changes aim to make it cheaper and easier for homeowners buy the freehold to their property, there was noticeably no mention of planning reform or housebuilding targets made today. 

Charles III’s speech to parliament ran to 1,223 words, making it the longest monarch’s speech at a state opening of parliament since 2005. But it wasn’t exactly meaty. It contained fewer bills than in any Queen’s Speech for almost a decade. 

Opposition leaders – who have now reassembled in the House of Commons to begin debating its content – have wasted no time in slamming the government. 

Labour has said the speech amounts to a “pretty pathetic programme of tinkering” while Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ed Davey described the mix of “cheap gimmicks and reheated policies” as a surefire sign that the Conservative government has run out of ideas. 

The Commons debate will span several days before MPs vote on it. Pathetic tinkering or otherwise, it’s expected to pass because the government has a large majority.

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