John Rentoul: Thanks, Your Majesty, but it's all about the Budget

Click to follow

The Queen's Speech never has a theme, and it is a parable of the limits of its power over the media that New Labour has not managed in 11 years successfully to fabricate a theme for a single one.

This year's attempt was the slogan "Fair Rules". As an attempt to provide a theoretical construct embracing welfare reform, sentencing policy and reclassifying lap dancing clubs as "sex encounter establishments", it falls a little short of the scientists' attempt to reconcile the behaviour of subatomic particles with Newtonian physics in aTheory of Everything.

But they tried. And the effort to provide a simple message that summarises a to-do list has become as much a part of the ritual of the event as the Irish state coach and the bit where the two party leaders are filmed walking side by side from the Commons to the Lords pretending not to hate each other.

The ritual then follows a set procedure: the Opposition says that the Government has run out of ideas; and then various BBC journalists interview each other and say that the speech has drawn up the battle lines for the next general election.

Except that the battle lines are never drawn up in Queen's Speeches; they are drawn up in Budgets and emergency Budgets, such as Alistair Darling's last month. Elections are fought over taxing, spending and economic management, and all the rest is a complicated dance as the two main parties try to stop each other gaining a decisive advantage on what Tony Blair once described as "touchstone issues" – the clutch of partly symbolic social policies designed to present party leaders as "on your side".

A lot of the Bills in the Queen's Speech are like that. Some of them seem to be more part of the ritual than the serious legislative business.

The Welfare Reform Bill sounds just like all the other welfare reform Bills that have been presented since 1997. James Purnell, the Secretary for Work and Pensions, makes a better fist of the arguments than most, but they are the same proposals every time. Lone parents should go to work. Sickness benefit shouldn't be used as disguised dole. Yet almost nothing has happened in 11 years. One of the most shocking statistics of the Labour Government is that for the percentage of the working-age population in employment: it has hardly changed at all. The full employment miracle that Gordon Brown still trumpets consists almost entirely of imported labour.

Purnell has a nice line in persuasive New Labour argument laced with human-scale humour: explaining his plans to get people off sickness benefit, for example, by pointing out that staying at home watching television is bad for you. But whether he will finally be able to make a difference in a recession is a hard one.

At the symbolic level, then, this Queen's Speech was weak. Strong messages, such as that on welfare, are undermined by having been repeated so often, with too little evidence of practical change in the past. Other symbolic Bills are of more doubtful electoral value.

The Child Poverty Bill, which will, as Her Majesty read out on behalf of her Government, "enshrine in law its commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020", looks like a diversion. It is going to use valuable legislative time – the shortage of which is used as an excuse for not doing other things – to turn a manifesto pledge into law without the means to fulfil it. All for a promise that many swing voters think is (a) unachievable and (b) a way of giving money to people who don't deserve it, at their expense.

If the next election comes down to money, as it will, then that is the kind of unfunded pledge that it may be dangerous for the Government to put up in lights. Because if the election is about taxing and spending, then the Conservatives are, for the first time since 1997, on the right side of the argument about unfunded promises.

The charge that David Cameron wants to "do nothing" about the fiscal crisis may be potent now but if "doing something" consists largely of spending money you haven't got, that won't be popular when the immediate crisis has passed. The Queen's Speech did nothing about that except make it worse.