All State Openings of Parliament are surreal occasions but Monday’s was more surreal than most. The eccentricities went beyond the almost Ruritarian pageantries of horse-drawn coaches in the Mall, a woman in breeches being called Black Rod and having a door slammed in her face, and all the rest. What was bizarre about this week’s State Opening is that it’s likely to be followed pretty quickly by a State Closing and then another State Opening not far behind. The poor Queen will barely have time to get back into her civvies. Meanwhile real politics is happening elsewhere, in the last-minute negotiations on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, dismissed the Queen’s Speech as a ‘propaganda exercise’ while Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, defended it as providing a vision of the Britain he wants to create beyond Brexit. Which is it?
The most obvious question to ask is why there should have been a Queen’s Speech at all. Mr Johnson justified it on the grounds that sessions of parliament, preceded by a Queen’s Speech in which the government outlines its legislative programme for the coming session, normally occur roughly once a year but the old session had been going strong (or not so strong) since the early summer of 2017. So time for a new one. He also argued that the public was getting fed up (who’s not?) with the amount of time and political energy being taken up by Brexit and needed reminding that there’s more to politics than this one issue, and most of it is about things that matter to people a great deal more. So he wanted to set out how his government wished to address those issues. As he put it, he wanted to show how he intended ‘to get the gears on our national gearbox working again’.
To which the immediate response from opposition parties was to say that the whole thing was an absurdity since the government hasn’t got the majority to implement any of the proposed measures and the Queen’s Speech itself is likely to be defeated in its entirety in a vote next week. Mr Corbyn said: ‘There has never been such a farce as a government with a majority of minus forty-five and a hundred per cent record of defeat in the House of Commons setting out a legislative agenda they know cannot be delivered in this parliament’.
That’s why many commentators are seeing the Queen’s Speech not in its usual garb as the outline of a legislative agenda but as the first draft of the Conservative Party manifesto for the impending election. That Mr Johnson should have resorted to getting the Queen to read out this first draft has raised a few eyebrows, and not for the first time in the new prime minister’s relationship with his sovereign.
As legislative agenda/Tory manifesto the Speech outlined traditional Conservative themes such as being tougher on crime, notably increasing prison terms for violent offenders. But perhaps more interestingly, it showed how the party seems to believe it needs to make an appeal to a different part of the electorate to the one on which it has traditionally depended. It has become a commonplace to say that the divide in British politics is no longer so much between left and right but between Remainers and Leavers. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is clearly intent on trying to seize the leadership of the Leave camp (and side-lining the Brexit Party in the process) but it knows that there are a lot of usually Labour-voting electors among the Leavers and it wants to appeal to them. Hence the number of measures proposed to bolster the NHS, including on patient safety. Hardly a day passes without the Prime Minister being photographed in a hospital with his sleeves rolled up and his tie tucked into his shirt.
Furthermore, in pursuit of these voters the government is anxious to shed its reputation as the party of austerity. In doing so it has risked abandoning its reputation for ‘fiscal prudence’: the Chancellor has already gone on a spending spree using the money his predecessor had squirreled away in case it was needed should Britain leave the EU without a deal, and he has done this even before we know whether we will or we won’t. Now too he has announced a Budget on 6 November (assuming Brexit with a deal before then) in which we can expect more largesse to be thrown at key marginal voters in time for the upcoming election.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s Speech has been attacked for what is not in it: nothing about protecting military veterans from prosecution for alleged historical offences, and nothing on social care which many see as the most egregious case of the gears on the national gearbox failing to function.
All of this, however, may well seem relatively insignificant by the end of the week when we will learn whether or not a last-minute Brexit deal has been secured; whether or not any deal can get through the House of Commons; whether or not Mr Johnson will find a way to defy the law (if no deal is done) in order to get Britain out of the EU on 31 October willy-nilly; and whether or not an election will finally take place and the Queen will have to traipse back to Westminster to read another speech, either one that is much the same if Mr Johnson is still prime minister or one that is very different should Mr Corbyn, by then, be resident in Downing Street.
So, was this week’s Queen’s Speech a timely vision of a future under a Johnson government, or a propaganda exercise using the Queen to promote a Tory manifesto? Which was it?
Let us know your views.