The Queen’s speech: Was that it?

The speech made by the Queen to open the new session of parliament was of more interest for what was not in it than what it contained, i.e. most of the manifesto Theresa May ran on during the recent election campaign. Neither was there mention of a state visit by Donald Trump. That the latter was what many pundits and commentators immediately focussed told its own story.

If the question that many wanted answering was: “do we have a working government or not?”, the answer will remain elusive, for now. With no deal announced yet with the DUP, Mrs May is still not guaranteed to get this package passed in parliament next week, let alone any of its component bits of legislation. But it may be bland enough to ensure little dissent from prospective partners.

Even if Mrs May survives in the short-term, though, her medium-term prospects are questionable. An announcement there will be no Queen’s speech next year suggests that the prime minister may be unlikely to see out the whole of this two-year parliamentary session, let alone a full five-year term. And with only 24 bills announced over those two years – whereas 20 in one year used to be the normal rule of thumb – this is certainly a light programme. Maybe it is smart thinking on the part of the new Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, who foresees the parliamentary battles ahead and is allowing extra time to accommodate them.

For Mrs May, today’s package is not what she envisaged when she called the election back in April. Missing items include the dementia tax (though there will be a consultation); means testing of winter fuel allowances; the end of free school lunches; the end of the pensions triple lock; a free vote on bringing back fox hunting and a cap on fuel bills. In short, not one of the controversial policies from the Conservative manifesto made it in.

What was in there was a whole lot of Brexit stuff: eight of the 24 bills address the subject. Alongside one to convert EU rules into UK law, there were measures on trade, customs, immigration, nuclear safeguards, international sanctions, fisheries and agriculture. The last two are squarely in Michael Gove’s purview as the new environment secretary. The rest of the speech, meanwhile – HS2, banning tenants’ fees, data protection – was largely as expected.

And it did suggest a more conciliatory approach to Brexit.  In a change of tone, and perhaps a move away from the strident “no deal is better than a bad deal” rhetoric of days gone by, the speech said the government’s priority “is to secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the EU”. The Queen said: “My ministers are committed to working with parliament, the devolved administrations, business and others to build the widest possible consensus on the country’s future outside the EU.” The word “consensus” raises this passage above standard government rhetoric.

But this was not the stuff of a wannabe prime minister’s dreams, or even that of someone who wants to remain so. Light on domestic and social policy changes, it will not reinvent Britain in the way Mrs May had previously expressed a desire to do. All the Brexit legislation will have some impact, and some more than others. But most of it became necessary once Article 50 was triggered; they are little more than housekeeping bills.

This was more of a holding speech: perhaps one last attempt by the prime minister to keep her job; perhaps just an effort to keep parliamentary time available for whoever comes next.

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