Rishi Sunak’s first King’s speech labelled a ‘damp squib’ by unimpressed Tory MPs

Rishi Sunak used his first and possibly only King’s Speech to outline plans for tougher jail sentences and to ease the environmental "burden" on households, as part of a last-ditch effort to reverse his party’s fortunes.

The speech confirmed previously announced plans to see murderers spend life behind bars and for criminals to attend court for sentencing.

There were also plans to extend the use of controversial lie detectors by probation officers and for a potential new tax on vapes.

But there was little in the way of major surprises in one of the lightest legislative programmes for a decade – as Labour accused the Conservatives of lacking “proper ambition” and “not even pretending to govern anymore”.

Senior Tory MPs supportive of Mr Sunak told The Independent that his plans for the next year were a “damp squib”, “dull as ditch water” and lacking “pizazz”.

Former Conservative PM Theresa May also accused Mr Sunak of “missing an opportunity” on climate change, with environmental groups rounding on his “ridiculous and dangerous” fossil fuel expansion.

Meanwhile, ex-cabinet minister David Davis said the plan to allow police to search people's homes for stolen goods without a warrant was a "fundamental mistake". The “right not to have the state kick your door down... without judicial approval” was a key British value, he said.

And senior Tory MP Alicia Kearns said the prime minister was leaving “LGBT people at the mercy of bigots and quacks” – as he was warned his decision to drop a promised conversion therapy ban would spark a backbench rebellion.

Other senior Tories also condemned his decision to drop mental health reform, amid fears it would leave people with learning disabilities locked up without reason, and a lack of action on AI.

Also missing from the speech was a crackdown on homeless people’s tents, floated by home secretary Suella Braverman at the weekend, although it is understood that could still be part of the Bill.

It came as:

  • The King's Speech confirmed previously announced plans for more whole-life jail terms for murderers - who’ll be forced to attend court for sentencing

  • A phased-in smoking ban - with anyone now 14 or under banned from ever buying cigarettes

  • Annual licences for North Sea oil and gas drilling; bills to pave way for driverless cars

  • But there was no watering down of green rules around new housing developments

  • Starmer accuses the Tories of putting party first, country second

In remarks accompanying the speech, Mr Sunak insisted the UK had “turned the corner” under his leadership and that his government was “stopping the boats”, despite tens of thousands arriving in the UK this year.

He used his government’s legislative programme to try to draw dividing lines with Labour, including over the North Sea. Sir Keir has said a Labour government would bar new oil and gas licenses.

At the centrepiece of the King’s Speech was a focus on criminal justice reform. Mr Sunak said the justice system had been too lenient for “too long”.

The plan will deliver on already-announced proposals for killers convicted of the most horrific murders to expect whole life orders – meaning they will never be released – while rapists and other serious sexual offenders will not be let out early from prison sentences. Legislation will also force criminals to hear their sentence in court, after a number of high-profile cases, including that of Lucy Letby.

But another measure, to give police the power to enter a property without a warrant to seize stolen goods, such as phones, when they have reasonable proof the specific item is inside, was condemned by senior Tories. As well as Mr Davis, ex-cabinet minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said the move would go “against one of our most ancient constitutional safeguards”.

As the UK’s prisons buckle at the seams, the criminal justice bill will also establish powers to transfer some prisoners abroad.

Also included were plans to end no-fault evictions, but only after a new court process is put in place, legislation to pave the way for self-driving cars and buses on UK roads, force streaming giants to adhere to a new code drafted similar to that imposed on television and crack down on the "scourge" of unlicensed pedicab operators in London.

One former Tory cabinet minister, a Sunak supporter, described the speech as “dull as ditchwater”. He told the Independent: “The problem for Rishi is having positioned himself as the ‘change candidate’ there wasn't any change in it.”

A second ex-minister and Sunak-backer, meanwhile, described it as “lacking pizazz”.

Another senior Tory said: “Having a damp squib like this is not the kind of leadership we need right now. It also piles pressure on them to do something at the autumn statement that I can actually sell to voters in my constituency”.

Former Tory minister Steve Brine criticised the “disappointing” failure to bring in mental health reform, to outlaw the inappropriate detention of people with learning disabilities and autism. “Without change, too many people will continue to be held in secure units, often for years at a time”, he said.

The charity Rethink Mental Illness charity said failure to introduce the changes was “a profound betrayal”.

Greg Clark, the Tory chair of the science select committee, has condemned the “disappointing” failure to include an AI bill that would help regulate the sector.

Meanwhile, the charity Stonewall said the lack of a ban on conversion practices had “given the green light for the abuse against LGBTQ+ people to continue unchecked”.

Shadow minister Chris Bryant claimed the plans were not a legislative programme for a whole year, adding: “We could get most of this done in a fortnight and then have a general election”.

The Liberal Democrats accused Mr Sunak of “cheap gimmicks and reheated policies”.