Britannia still following the 'uncool' rules

TOMORROW MORNING, if early hype was to be believed, a trem- ulous nation should be assembling before its television sets to witness the biggest shake-up to the state opening of Parliament in its 450-year history.

Deference and silly names were supposed to be out, New Britain was to sweep in on Tony Blair's zealous, modernising coat tails. The Queen's Most Excellent Majesty, as the monarch is known on such occasions, was even to be asked to make her entrance by car, rather than in the Irish State Coach.

"Downing Street wants to do away with 'outdated' pomp and ceremony as early as this autumn and introduce a 'cool Britannia' feel to the 450-year-old tradition," one newspaper reported breathlessly in March.

The trouble is, it hasn't quite worked out like that. Indeed, it would take the most dedicated royalist to spot any difference at all.

The Queen is to lose a lady in waiting, her Silver Stick and a couple of gentlemen ushers, and Black Rod is going to bang on the door of the Commons a few minutes earlier to speed proceedings along. And that is about it.

Silver Stick in Waiting (who is the commanding officer of the Household Cavalry) may be sitting it out, but Gold Stick in Waiting (the Colonel of the Household Cavalry) will still be around. The Gentleman Usher to the Sword of State will have to get someone else to bear his weapon. But, reassuringly, the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain will still walk backwards ahead of the sovereign. An offer to proceed in a more normal fashion was, apparently, declined.

The Lord Chancellor has asked to be spared the task of walking backwards down the steps of the throne. Even this, however, is said to stem from a desire to avoid an accident.

So what happened to the root-and-branch reform? Was this another successful rearguard action fought by the powers of privilege?

Absolutely not, according to a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman. Reform was actually the Queen's idea all along.

"This is a Palace initiative," she said, denying that the Government had applied any pressure for change. "We have been looking at ceremonies across the board to see where some sensible adjustments could be made, and these are the conclusions we reached with the state opening."

The Main Bills

The main Bills in the Queen's Speech tomorrow are expected to be:

Lords reform: Removes the right of hereditary peers to speak and vote in the Lords.

European elections: Allows next elections to be fought on a form of proportional representation with "closed" lists of candidates selected by party leadership.

NHS modernisation: Abolishes family doctor "fundholders", replaces them with primary care groups and two new statutory watchdogs (see above).

Fairness at work: Union recognition if 40 per cent of workforce vote in favour; automatic recognition if 50 per cent of union members, but must have been members for at least three months.

Criminal justice: Youth justice reforms, protection of rape victims from witness cross-examination, restrictions on use of jury trials to save costs.

London: Creates elected mayor and Greater London Authority in 2000.

Local government: Directly elected mayors outside London; Sunday voting in shopping malls to tackle apathy.

Gay sex: Reduces age of consent from 18 to 16 years.

Welfare: Shake-up benefits for long-term sick and disabled, new medical tests for incapacity, long-term cuts in widows' benefits but extension to men for first time.

Asylum and immigration: Curbs on cash benefits for asylum-seekers and on rights to housing.

Access to justice: Ends monopoly of barristers in crown courts, cuts cost of legal aid by limiting cases to "cab rank" of lawyers approved by Legal Aid Board.

Electronic exchange: Provides Internet users with a "digital signature" to use credit cards without fear of fraud.

Financial services: Sets up financial services authority to regulate the City.