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Sunak sets out ‘ambition’ for nation with challenges to Labour in King’s Speech

King Charles III stands after delivering a speech beside Queen Camilla during the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London. Photo by Leon Neal/PA Wire

Rishi Sunak insisted he has “turned the corner” to put the country on a better path as he used the King’s Speech to set out a pre-election stall containing challenges for Sir Keir Starmer.

In his first State Opening of Parliament as monarch, Charles had to detail legislation mandating annual oil and gas licensing for the North Sea – which the Conservatives hope will draw a political dividing line with the Labour leader.

The King, a long-term champion of environmental causes, said the new fossil fuel fields will support the transition to net zero by 2050 “without adding undue burdens on households”.

Charles paid tribute to the late Queen’s “legacy of service and devotion” and said ministers will focus on “difficult but necessary long-term decisions”, as he read out the Government’s legislative priorities in the first King’s Speech in seven decades.

With a general election expected next year, the Prime Minister put a series of criminal justice proposals at the centre of the first such speech he has overseen from No 10.

But there was little in the way of surprises despite Mr Sunak trying to portray himself as a change candidate after 13 years of Tory rule and the chaos under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

A consultation on taxing vapes to make them less affordable was added to existing plans to create a “smokefree generation” by banning tobacco sales to anyone who turns 14 this year or younger.

But there was no mention of a series of contentious proposals, including action to tackle rough sleeping in tents after Home Secretary Suella Braverman provoked outrage by criticising people she said were on the streets as a “lifestyle choice”.

Sir Keir said the address was a “new low” that amounted to a “plan for more of the same”.

He criticised the oil policy as a “political gimmick” which will “not take a single penny off anyone’s bills”.

The package of 20 Bills and a draft includes proposals to:

  • End no-fault evictions – but not until a new court process and stronger possession grounds for landlords are in place
  • Pave the way for the introduction of self-driving cars and buses on UK roads by putting in place a legal framework centred on safety and user protection
  • Permanently ban the live export of livestock for slaughter and fattening after a previous bid to impose a prohibition failed
  • Subject streaming giants to a new video-on-demand code drafted and enforced by Ofcom that will apply similar standards to those imposed on television
  • Crack down on the “scourge” of unlicensed pedicab operators in London.

A ban on the creation of new leasehold houses in England and Wales was included – but it left out flats, which make up to 70% of the market in England.

Experts at the IPPR think tank said the policy misses the “real issue” and campaigners at the HomeOwners Alliance said the reforms “fall short of breaking homeowners free from the shackles of leasehold”.

Mr Sunak, in words accompanying the King’s Speech, insisted there are “clear” results from the five priorities he set for the nation to judge him on.

He acknowledged that there is “more to do” on cutting NHS waiting lists, but insisted he had “made progress” after patients waiting for hospital treatment hit a record high.

The Prime Minister said inflation is down, as he appears on course to cut it in half this year, and that the economy is growing – albeit minimally as the Bank of England warns of a year of stagnation.

Mr Sunak insisted that “we are stopping the boats”, arguing that crossings are down on this time last year – though more than 26,600 people have still made it across the Channel unauthorised.

“We have turned the corner over the last year and put the country on a better path,” he said.

“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.”

Mr Sunak said the public wants a Government that is more ambitious for the future, adding: “With this historic King’s Speech, we are rising to that challenge. We are changing our country for the long term, delivering a brighter future.”

What was not in the speech was also revealing.

Downing Street sources said that the Home Secretary’s proposals to restrict tents for rough sleepers were still “undergoing scrutiny”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman declined to “speculate” on the proposals, despite Ms Braverman having set them out herself on social media as she warned British cities could “go the way of places in the US like San Francisco and Los Angeles”.

He did not rule them out later appearing in the Criminal Justice Bill, but said its “focus” has already been set out and a briefing note on the legislation contains no mention of rough sleeping.

There was no inclusion of a Bill to ban so-called conversion therapy for LGBT+ people after Mr Sunak faced a backlash from some quarters of the Tory party who argue it could affect parents and teachers.

Mr Sunak’s spokesman maintained that the practice is “abhorrent” but said time was needed to work out a policy on the “complex” area as they seek to avoid unintended consequences.

Campaigners at Stonewall said it was “frightful negligence”.

Downing Street insisted it was still committed to a manifesto pledge to ban imports from trophy hunting, but it was not a feature of new animal welfare reforms.

Mr Sunak’s desire to axe “nutrient neutrality” rules requiring housebuilders to ensure new homes do not add to river pollution was absent after his last bid was defeated in the Lords.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh accused the Tories of having “flunked” their chance to reform the railways after the speech only included a draft on trains.

Downing Street had put strong emphasis on the law and order policies, including previously announced proposals for killers convicted of the most horrific murders to never be released from jail.

Rapists and other serious sexual offenders would not be let out early from prison sentences under the plans.

Other measures include handing police greater powers to enter a property without a warrant to seize stolen goods, such as phones.

Senior Tories hope a focus on issues seen as traditionally Conservative will help Mr Sunak overturn Labour’s consistently double-digit poll lead.

Allies of the Prime Minister also believe that the Labour leader’s record as director of public prosecutions could prove to be a weak point.

Labour has pledged to block new domestic exploration licences for fossil fuels, but the King’s Speech includes a proposed law to make annual oil and gas licences annual.

Mr Sunak vowed to continue supporting Israel as he carried over a Bill that would ban councils imposing boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against other countries.

The legislation is seen by some as a bid to draw another dividing line with the Opposition, as Labour fails to remain united in its response to the Israel-Hamas war.

Some Tories oppose the measures, too, as a violation of free speech.

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