When Boris Johnson’s government on Tuesday unveils its legislative programme for the coming year, there will be some striking omissions.
Legislation to improve UK auditing and corporate governance, provide statutory powers for a technology watchdog, and create a new football supervisory authority — all meant to enhance the operation of business or to enable fairer market conditions — have been dropped from the Queen’s Speech.
Whitehall officials said the government’s decisions to jettison the bills reflected political priorities and practical issues, but also highlighted the influence of one key figure in Downing Street: David Canzini, a deputy chief of staff to the prime minister.
Canzini was hired in February after Johnson responded to calls by Conservative MPs for a shake-up of what they saw as a dysfunctional Number 10 at the height of the partygate scandal.
With the Bank of England warning last week that the UK is heading for recession, Canzini has told colleagues in recent days that Downing Street believes that “Conservative governments don’t legislate their way to economic growth”, said one official.
The government has dropped plans for a bill which would have created a single agency to enforce employee rights and made flexible working the default option for staff.
Canzini has vetted proposed government policies based on whether they will go down well with voters — for example audit reform has been judged boring — as Johnson gears up for a general election either next year or in 2024. Downing Street declined to comment.
One minister said that the aversion by some in Number 10 to new business regulation was part of a “bastard form of Thatcherism” which failed to recognise that good rules could help the operation of markets — for example by stopping corporate scandals.
Roger Barker, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, a business lobby group, said that it felt that government policies towards companies had changed in the past few months, with some parts of Whitehall becoming resistant to certain reforms or wanting to prioritise other issues.
He added: “At the IoD, we are conscious of regulatory burden . . . But in some areas reform is urgently needed, such as in putting the audit watchdog on a statutory footing. It’s disappointing as these are areas we have been working on for a while, and helped shape them to become business friendly.”
At a meeting with ministers’ advisers last week following bad local election results for the Conservatives, Canzini called on aides to come up with more “wedge issues” to differentiate the Tories from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Across Whitehall, Canzini is credited — or blamed — for several recent policies designed to reassure rightwing Conservative MPs.
These include resisting a generous new target for expansion of onshore wind farms and a public consultation on ending a moratorium on fracking for oil and gas.
The government has also ditched plans to ban “buy one, get one free” deals on junk food from supermarkets.
Canzini was a longstanding business partner of Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist who is one of Johnson’s key allies going back to his time as London mayor.
Canzini has kept a much lower profile than Crosby, saying on his Twitter page — beneath a picture of Darth Vader — “Who cares who or what I am?”
He has power and influence in Whitehall that extends far beyond his job title. For example, Canzini holds a meeting each Friday with all ministers’ special advisers, a task previously carried out by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser.
One adviser said: “People are scared of him but in a good way — if he wants things done they get done fast.”
One former business colleague of Canzini said he liked to portray himself as a “bruiser”.
Canzini served as an adviser to Theresa May when she was prime minister, but clashed with her over Brexit because he felt she was pursuing too soft a departure from the EU. He subsequently became a close ally of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs that helped undermine May.
Some ministers expressed hope that bills to reform audit regulation and corporate governance, empower the tech watchdog called the digital markets unit, and create the football supervisory authority, will be enacted before the next election.
They suggested bills on all three areas should feature in the 2023 Queen’s Speech, with draft versions drawn up for “pre-legislative scrutiny” over the coming year.
But some government insiders were sceptical. The last parliamentary session before an election often involves a focus on legislation deemed to play well with voters, with other bills being scrapped.
Whitehall officials said decisions on what legislation to include in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday were also influenced by how the government is contending with a backlog of bills caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Half a dozen pieces of legislation from the last parliamentary session, including the contentious online safety bill to tackle illegal and harmful internet content, have still not reached the statute book. They will now be rolled over into the 2022-23 parliamentary session.
The process of whittling down the list of bills to include in the Queen’s Speech has been chaotic and “last minute”, said one official.
“They’ve been so occupied with partygate, then the war in Ukraine, there hasn’t really been the bandwidth in Number 10 to go through all the legislation that ministers were putting forward,” added the official.
Additional reporting by Daniel Thomas in London