OPINION - The King's Speech: Less about laws, more about the election

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Football fans often get excited about corner kicks. They are, after all, a free opportunity to cross the ball into the penalty area. But corners rarely lead to shots, let alone goals.

In fact, Michael Caley, a writer and researcher in sports analytics, once found that each corner has a rough value of 0.035 goals. That is, a 3.5 per cent chance of ending with the ball in the back of the net. As an Arsenal supporter, even that figure feels ludicrously inflated.

Politicians, especially those behind in the opinion polls, have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of their own set pieces, such as party conferences, major speeches and fiscal events. Each is treated as a gilt-edged chance (the football references will end soon, I promise) to cut through with the public, in the hope of clawing back support. But things rarely work out that way.

To prime ministers and their advisors, something like the State Opening of Parliament represents a tangible opportunity not only to set out the government's legislative agenda, but to change minds. Herein lies the gulf between political and normal people.

Outside of general elections, much of the public simply isn't paying attention. This is not a criticism, by the way – people are busy. They elect politicians to get on with the job. Indeed, I think this is rather a good thing. I'm much more comfortable living in a country where low information voters, rather than obsessives, decide elections.

This in part explains why the 2017 general election ended in a hung parliament rather than a Conservative landslide as the polls initially suggested. That campaign was an opportunity for both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to introduce themselves to the electorate. Despite the fact that the former had been home secretary for six years and prime minister for another, while the latter had been opposition leader for two years.

The public's diverted attention is a problem for Rishi Sunak. His party consistently trails Labour by 15-20 points, and so he needs to change minds. The prime minister has hopes that today's King's Speech might do just that. These are likely to be dashed. Not because leasehold reform isn't long overdue, or raising the smoking age isn't medically sound, but because voters aren't watching.

This is not to say that they never pay attention outside of general election campaigns. Liz Truss managed to garner plenty of eyeballs, but not for the right reason. Indeed, the mini-budget is a good example of what I'm talking about. That single event blew up the Conservative's reputation for economic competence, much like the UK's exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism had done three decades earlier.

The mini-Budget was what cognitive psychologists might call a "flashbulb event", one where we retain memories with a lot of vivid and emotional detail. The mini-Budget wasn't quite up there with the Kennedy assassination, but in terms of the Tories's electoral prospects, it may prove just as fatal.

The mini-Budget simply had enormous salience. This is because it produced a sudden and consumer-facing impact: mortgage rates spiked. And while interest rates were on the rise anyway, the mini-Budget gave the phenomenon a face and a name.

To be clear, that event was not Sunak's fault. The guy campaigned against Truss for leader, during which he warned that her loose fiscal policy risked stoking inflation and higher interest rates. After his defeat, Sunak declined to serve in her cabinet. His current chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, reversed most of the measures in the mini-Budget. None of this matters.

If I may end by switching sports, the American writer Wright Thomas once quipped, "In Test cricket, only bad things happen quickly. Anything good takes time." The same is true in politics. Reputations, particularly for economic management, are hard won and easily lost. Meanwhile, opportunities to cut through are few and far between.

In the comment pages, Matthew d'Ancona says Britain is not a liberal democracy if we ban pro-Palestinian marches on Armistice Day. Defence Editor Robert Fox explains why diplomacy in the Middle East is failing badly – for now. While Melanie McDonagh suggests that only the English are insecure enough to need Nicky Haslam's tea-towel to tell them what's common.

And finally, does London's first billion-pound hotel live up to the hype? Travel guru Business Editor Jonathan Prynn, who enjoyed an evening (and two meals) there, tells all.

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