From eye-watering online harms regulation to a new research and innovation push, there was much to yesterday’s Queen’s Speech for our clients to wrap their heads around. Although Elizabeth II was on the throne, it was Boris Johnson being feted as king following last week’s local election results. Belying the triumphal mood, however, is the prospect of a second independence referendum in Scotland, after a pro-independence majority emerged in Edinburgh.
Summary of local election results: England, Scotland and Wales
The UK seems poised for further years of constitutional turmoil after a pro-independence majority won the Scottish parliament’s elections. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the results provided a mandate for a second independence referendum once the immediate COVID-19 crisis is over. While the government in London has refused these calls so far, it is increasingly likely that the future of the UK will dominate politics in the years to come. Expect a replay of Brexit discussions – data flows, budget contributions, fishing allocations, freedom of movement…
In England, the Conservative Party enjoyed some of the best results for a sitting government in a generation. Conservatives dismantled chunks of the “Red Wall”, achieving overwhelming victory in England’s elections in places where voting Tory was taboo. Labour suffered historic losses, including Durham council for the first time in a century and Hartlepool for the first time since the 1960s in a by-election. In the Tees Valley mayoral contest, Conservative incumbent Ben Houchen overwhelmed his Labour rival by a landslide, 73% of votes to 27%.
It was gloomier for the Conservatives in the cities: in London, Sadiq Khan won the mayoral race with a vote share four points lower than 2016. Labour pulled off surprise victories in the West of England and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoral elections. Labour’s Andy Burnham was comfortably re-elected in Greater Manchester with 67% of votes, while Steve Rotheram was re-elected in Liverpool City Region with 58%.
The SNP failed to win a majority in the Scottish Parliament (by one seat); however, a pro-independence majority was achieved as the Greens won eight seats in Holyrood. This will apply greater pressure on Boris Johnson who, aware of the vulnerability of the Union, has called a meeting of Scotland’s and Wales’s First Ministers.
In Wales, Labour, led by First Minister Mark Drakeford overcame gloomy polls to win half of the Welsh seats and will now decide whether to lead a minority government or to form a Labour-led administration with other parties.
The Queen has outlined the government’s priorities for the year ahead, as she officially reopened parliament. In a ten-minute speech in the House of Lords, she highlighted 30 laws that ministers intend to pass in the coming year.
The headline measure is the new Online Safety Bill, which seeks to make Ofcom the regulator of “harmful” internet content and even reintroduce age verifications against adult content, with websites and content providers facing possible fines or even being blocked by ISPs and mobile operators.
For broadband and internet policy, there were no great surprises and the Queen mostly referred to previously declared actions. Most of the actions referred to removing further red tape and supporting the distribution of new fixed and mobile networks via the £5 billion Project Gigabit programme and the £1 billion Shared Rural Network project.
The Product Safety and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill intends to reform rules around access to physical infrastructure and to ease the negotiations with local authorities to deploy 5G by amending the Electronic Communications Code. It also will set into law basic cybersecurity standards for smartphones, wearables and TVs. There is also the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, also carried over, which aims to ban Huawei from any involvement in the UK’s 5G mobile networks.
Research and innovation was also mentioned in the speech in the form of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill, a new statutory corporation to fund high-risk, high-reward R&D, with a planned budget of £800M. Further, the Future Fund will target innovative, R&D-intensive firms and provide them with the capital they need to grow and succeed.
To lead recovery, the National Infrastructure Plan aims to transform the UK’s infrastructure to rebuild the economy and achieve net zero emissions. The UK Infrastructure Bank will launch later this year and provide financial support to the private sector and local authority infrastructure projects across the UK. In addition to this, “Project Speed” will accelerate and improve the delivery of infrastructure projects, while the development of green infrastructure will also be at the centre of the plan.
Article written by Oliver Gonzalez.