The dust has barely settled upon the election, but the new Government’s legislative plans show that it is already running out of time.
By Leon Cook
Skating on thin ice
Stalwart Labour MP and long-serving maverick Dennis Skinner’s traditional jibe at the pomp and circumstance of the State Opening of Parliament is the stuff of legend. Today’s quip – ‘Get your skates on, the first race is at half past two!’ – was a none-too-subtle dig at Her Majesty’s date at Royal Ascot this afternoon.
For once, though, Skinner’s barb might be of some value to the Conservatives. ‘Get your skates on’ is sound advice. A new Parliament has been assembled. Negotiations with the EU on the UK’s impending departure are underway. And yet Theresa May’s Government still cannot be sure that it will be able to command a Parliamentary majority when the Queen’s Speech is brought to a vote next week, let alone when the Commons comes to have its say on Brexit.
Union with the Unionists?
Evidently the Democratic Unionist Party is intent on wringing every last pound out of the Exchequer for Northern Ireland as recompense for any agreement to prop up the Conservatives in government. Rumours abound of heady demands for billions in investment in Ulster. The Tories will struggle to justify any such bung, but the alternative looks equally unappetising.
Without a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement ensuring that the DUP will support the Government on key votes, such as the Queen’s Speech and the budget, the Conservatives are never more than one Parliamentary division away from a vote of no confidence in their administration.
So, the result of what has been perhaps the most dramatic month in UK politics for 20 years – more so even than last June’s referendum saga – is one of the shortest Queen’s Speeches in living memory. May has had little choice but to gut her own manifesto, for fear of failing to push any of its more controversial measures past her own recalcitrant backbenchers.
Gone are proposals to ditch the pensions triple-lock, cap energy tariffs, expand grammar schools, cut free school lunches, slash winter fuel payments for wealthy pensioners and hold a vote on fox hunting. Perhaps inevitably, the much-maligned social care policy, devastatingly if somewhat unfairly dismissed as a ‘Dementia Tax’, has been sent out for consultation – or, in plain English, kicked into the long grass.
The anaemic cluster of would-be laws which have survived represent less a programme for government, but rather a last shot at survival. Of the twenty-seven bills proposed, some eight are linked to Brexit – its execution, or its implementation. Notably, Her Majesty opened her address with an insistence that her Government is ‘committed to building the widest possible consensus.’
But any softening of the official stance, together with an influx of ‘Remainers’ into senior Government posts, is certain to spell trouble for a party which has spent the best part of the last three decades tearing itself apart over Europe. It was the issue of Europe which finally saw off Mrs Thatcher; do not be surprised if allegations of Brexit ‘backsliding’ inspire the ultra-sceptics whom John Major famously branded ‘the bastards’ to commit a similar act of matricide.
The Clock is ticking
The Queen has opened Parliament 64 times in her reign. She has announced the legislative programmes of historic Governments led by Churchill, Thatcher, and Blair – but also the short-lived and ultimately doomed administrations of Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home, and Jim Callaghan. Whether Theresa May falls into the former category or the latter remains to be seen, but one suspects that today’s Queen’s Speech might have been both May’s first and her last.
For more on The Queen’s speech, watch the following video:
Leon Cook is a director in APCO’s London office. He provides senior UK public affairs counsel to APCO’s corporate and government clients.