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Hoping to win back voters, UK’s Johnson pledges economic growth

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures at a market stall, during an event to promote British businesses, at Downing Street, London Britain May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool
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By Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) -Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised on Tuesday to revive Britain’s economic growth to help those struggling with a cost-of-living crisis and to tackle regional inequalities after setting out his government’s agenda for the coming months.

Punished by voters in last week’s local elections over COVID lockdown-related scandals and soaring inflation, Johnson said his ruling Conservative Party would “deliver on the promises we made” in the 2019 election.

The plans, contained in the Queen’s Speech, were read out at the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament for the first time in 59 years not by Queen Elizabeth but by her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, due to the monarch’s mobility problems.

But there was little to comfort the millions of Britons struggling with higher fuel and food costs, with the government reiterating that it would “repair the public finances” rather than channel additional money to cushion the blow.

Johnson told parliament his government would do all it could to help those struggling with rising prices, but “however great our compassion and ingenuity, we cannot simply spend our way out of this problem, we need to grow out of this problem”.

“We will get through the after-shocks of COVID … by urgently pressing on with our mission to create the high-wage, high-skilled jobs that will drive economic growth across the United Kingdom,” he said.

Earlier, in a ceremony full of pomp and pageantry, Charles – who wore the uniform of an admiral of the fleet – read the speech in front of robed lords and lawmakers, who had walked from the House of Commons to the upper chamber, the House of Lords, led by Johnson and opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Charles was drafted in after Buckingham Palace said on Monday that the 96-year-old queen was experiencing “episodic mobility problems” and had reluctantly decided she could not attend.

‘OUT OF TOUCH’

The Queen’s Speech set out 38 bills, including measures to revitalise Britain’s high streets, crack down on illicit finance and make the City, London’s financial district, more attractive to global investors after the country left the European Union.

Conservative lawmakers welcomed the proposed laws. David Jones, a former minister, told Reuters it showed “an ambitious government agenda, seizing the opportunities of Brexit”.

But Starmer said the government’s response to the cost-of-living crisis was “pathetic”.

“We have a government whose time has passed, a cabinet out of ideas and out of energy, led by a prime minister entirely out of touch,” the Labour leader told parliament.

Johnson’s government is keen to turn the page on scandals after months of reports of COVID-19 lockdown-busting gatherings at the prime minister’s Downing Street office and residence.

After Johnson and his finance minister, Rishi Sunak, were both handed fines for one such gathering, Starmer stepped up the pressure by pledging to resign if police found he had also broken lockdown rules. Downing Street is still awaiting the results of a police investigation into other gatherings.

The Queen’s Speech provided no clues on how the government might help people struggling to pay their bills, though Johnson later told parliament there would be more to say on the matter “in the days to come”.

The Bank of England said last week Britain risks a double-whammy of a recession and inflation above 10%.

Johnson’s spokesman said the government had already put in 22 billion pounds to address immediate pressures and that focusing on boosting economic growth offered a more sustainable solution. “It’s an important point for the public to understand that our capacity to inject money is finite,” he said.

Johnson was punished in last week’s local elections, when voters in Conservative-dominated southern England abandoned his party over the lockdown scandals and the cost of living.

This prompted some lawmakers to urge a return to a more traditional Conservative agenda of tax cuts and preventing housing from encroaching on rural areas.

With his critics falling short of the numbers needed within the Conservative Party to try to oust him, Johnson hopes that by refocusing on an agenda he believes won him a large majority in the 2019 election he can reboot his premiership.

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