Unfinished business: Policies that could fail under the UK’s ‘lame duck’ government | Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson is still prime minister, for now, and has appointed a cabinet, so technically government business should be able to continue. While the country is in the grip of a crisis of the cost of living and that it is necessary to act in all the fields, from education to energy, the ministerial baskets are overflowing. But the chances of a “lame” administration doing much seem decidedly slim. Here are some of the major policies that could stagnate amid the chaos.

Energy

It promised to be a momentous – and fiery – week in the energy industry as long-running battles came to a head. A decision on approving £165million plans for Britain’s first new coal mine in decades, near Whitehaven in west Cumbria, was expected but has been delayed. A review of hydraulic fracturing, originally scheduled for last week, has yet to see the light of day. A decision on whether to approve planning for the Sizewell C nuclear reactor in Suffolk, disputed by environmental campaigners, was due on Friday. It has now been postponed to July 20.

Whitehaven in Cumbria is the site of a proposed new coal mine in the North West of England. Photo: Jon Super/AP

Gambling repression

A once-in-a-generation reform of outdated UK gambling laws was due to be unveiled next week, but that was thrown into question by the resignation of gambling minister Chris Philp. The white paper is expected to include stricter wagering limits on online casino games and accessibility controls to ensure punters don’t lose too much unless the proposals are watered down. Other policies at play include the creation of a gambling ombudsman, a mandatory levy on operators to fund addiction services and a possible ban on betting logos on football shirts.

Northern Ireland Protocol

Johnson, like his predecessor, could leave office with the issue of trade with Northern Ireland unresolved. His government is pushing through legislation to rip up arrangements he signed that impose controls on goods going from Britain to NI.

European leaders on Thursday quickly called on Johnson’s successor to drop plans to deliberately break international law, which could spark a wider trade war between the UK and its biggest trading partner. Warmer relations could also open the door for the UK to join the EU’s €90bn (£76bn) Horizon scientific research programme.

HS2 north

The high-speed rail network has always been opposed by a majority of Conservative voters and particularly among the Brexit wing. Johnson loves big infrastructure projects and has supported them. Nonetheless, in his leadership campaign, he stoked votes by promising to see him again – even though, once elected, he handed that review over to a former HS2 president.

Surely too much work has been done on stage one from London to Birmingham to now return without colossal waste, and stage 2a to Crewe has passed parliament. But a new leader could always choose to cut out the rest.

Education

Teachers’ pay is the main job of new Education Secretary James Cleverly – he must publish School Teachers’ Review Body recommendations before the end of term or risk angering teachers in England even more ahead of the polls strike in the fall.

Exam results for A-levels and GCSEs arrive in mid-August – and will see big drops in top marks compared to last year. Whoever the education secretary is will have to make it clear to disgruntled students and parents why this happened. The associated college admissions cycle could be a similar nightmare for ministers.

Michelle Donelan leaves 10 Downing Street
The Higher Education Free Speech Bill faces opposition from the Lords and has now lost its main sponsor, Michelle Donelan. Photography: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The Schools Bill now before Parliament is in trouble and needs a major overhaul to defeat opponents in the Lords who see it as a centralizing takeover of the academies by the government.

The Higher Education Free Speech Bill also faces opposition from the Lords and has now lost its main sponsor, Michelle Donelan, as minister. It may be further delayed as its flaws are exposed.

Other policies left on hold include the consultation on the review of special educational needs and disabilities which is ending soon and needs urgent attention if reforms are to progress, while new policies on post-Covid catch-up and attendance education also require the attention of ministers.

Retail taxes

The rapid evolution of the retail sector brought about by the Internet has not been accompanied by updates to the way it is taxed. The government carried out a consultation on the reform of the system of business tariffs for shops and on an online sales tax for online retailers. A decision on the latter was expected in the fall, but is already facing stiff opposition from pro-Tory think tanks.

Online harm

Parliament is due to consider the Government’s Online Safety Bill next week. A major shift in internet regulation would potentially require social media platforms, video streaming services and search engines to reduce the influence of foreign state-sponsored disinformation. Two supporters of the bill, Nadine Dorries and Priti Patel, are still in office, and the government has said it will complete the next stage before parliament goes into recess on July 21.

Human rights

Dominic Raab has long had the Human Rights Act, introduced by Labour, in his sights. He wants a replacement ‘bill of rights’ to allow the UK Supreme Court to override rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (the arbiter of the European Convention on Human Rights not -EU).

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The bill comes with a proposal to prevent the wealthy from using the threat of costly legal action to silence journalists or activists, by filing so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation, or Slapps. A consultation has been closed, but the detailed proposals have not been published.

Immigration

The government’s decision to ship refugees from the UK to Rwanda has drawn opposition ranging from Tory backbenchers to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has also so far failed to make it to court, after a planned first flight was prevented from departing. The project’s architects, Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel, are still in place and government lawyers are due to make their case for the flights to take place on July 19. Even if it clears this hurdle, a future administration could easily abandon politics.

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