Steve Richards: A Queen's Speech too far? Not if the Government turns radical

Today’s package shows that Labour can still make a positive difference
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The Independent Online

A couple of years ago I saw a play in which a violent act was committed in the first scene. Or at least I thought I witnessed a violent act.

By the end of the play I was not so sure. I seem to remember that the play was one of Alan Ayckbourn's later works, staged in Scarborough. The device was certainly typical of his stagecraft, highlighting that what you see on the stage is not always what is actually happening. Or perhaps what you saw did happen, but does not make much sense in the light of subsequent events and therefore you conclude you did not see it at all.

The same phenomenon applies to politics. Quite often what we see is not what is in front of our eyes. When William Hague wore a baseball cap as Tory leader most voters saw a buffoon. Take a look at the photos now. He looked fine. Now he is more highly rated that would be a common verdict. When Brown was photographed on holiday the summer before last, we saw an awkward and out of touch leader wearing an old fashioned jacket. He was way behind in the polls by then. The same summer, Cameron looked cool in denim on a beach in Cornwall. If we had seen the same photos the year before when Brown was on his brief honeymoon we would have seen someone with a serious, business-like demeanour and noted Cameron's casual shallowness. Cameron's leadership was being called into question at the time. We choose what we want to see.

What do we see now? Largely we see a modernised Conservative party striding towards inevitable victory and a backward-looking Government limping towards chaotic defeat. That is the narrative and nothing is allowed to get in the way of it.

What is actually happening is more complicated, as today's Queen's Speech will demonstrate if we look carefully enough. The problem with Queen's Speeches is that there is never anything new in them. By the time a proposal is included in a legislative programme it has been announced several times before, at a party conference, in interviews and newspaper articles. Brown has made matters more familiar by announcing virtually the same programme twice, once in the summer in his so-called pre-legislative report and again in the autumn. The idea was based on the pre-budget report, in which Brown got to deliver two budgets each year. It has not worked as well in relation to the Queen's Speech. Today's address was previewed last July and any additions were announced during the space in between, not least in Brown's party conference speech, which was punctuated with so many proposals – most of them forgotten – that it sounded at times like a combination of a Queen's Speech and one of his longer budgets.

As a result the Queen's Speech tends each year to be a curious mix of the glitzy and anti-climactic. Today's rituals will almost certainly lead the TV bulletins tonight and the opening shots will convey a sense of regal grandeur as the Queen arrives to deliver the wooden prose. But already weariness accompanies the limited anticipation. On top of the familiarity of the ritual and the contents, the Government's opponents ask "What's the point?", a mood captured effectively by Nick Clegg in The Independent on Monday when he called for a constitutional revolution rather than an artificial event from a Government that faces an election next year. For nearly all commentators, and indeed most Labour MPs, a Conservative government is a certainty, indeed taken as an inevitability, and so they regard today's exercise as even more irrelevant than Clegg.

The event and what it signifies are being downplayed too much. There will not be new policies, but there will be an assortment of measures, some of them significant. This means that briefly at least the focus will be on policy, something of a novelty in itself. It is widely underestimated how important robust policies are in the run-up to elections. If anything the dynamic of British elections place a disproportionate focus on minute policy detail, as journalists seek weak points in a thousand press conferences and interviews. If there are televised leadership debates during the election the winner will have the most robust policies, and those that withstand the most intense scrutiny. Most of the time policy does not get much of a look in, but it will between now and the election.

On this basis the seemingly doomed Government has more of a case than is perceived. Today's package has a theme of sorts, a belief that government can make a positive difference to the elderly, the environment, the banking system, housing and the NHS.

"Smart government, not bigger government" is how ministers describe it, neurotically fearful of any talk about the state, although with Cameron arguing for a much smaller state the divide is pretty clear. It is an important division too, more interesting and honest than the one that has marked recent elections which in the end came down to "competence versus incompetence", a meaningless debate about the managerial qualities of either side. If we try to see what is happening in politics at the moment, rather than what we think is happening, we get another baseball cap moment. No one would argue that of itself today's measures will lead to celebratory street parties around the land or deserve to do so, but a few of the policies are measurably more radical than any of those put forward in 1997 when the partying went on for months.

I suspect most voters will welcome guarantees in relation to hospital treatments, even if in theory they oppose targets in the NHS. Targets sound sinister. Guarantees are more reassuring and convey a sense of a contract between government, tax payer and patient over how resources are deployed. The Conservatives will be living dangerously if they lift targets too quickly. Similarly today's proposals for elderly social care are more courageous than they seem in that most will pay more to help those on low incomes. When the proposal was first mooted Brown was terrified about "stealth tax" headlines. At least he still went ahead in the end even though the headlines came as predicted. Similarly the plans for climate change, while not as zealous as some environmentalists would wish, are more daring than seemed likely two years ago.

Perhaps none of the proposals will be implemented by the election. Maybe they will all turn into dust, but they mark a departure from cautious incremental approaches usually adopted by the Government. The Conservatives' equivalent proposals have an echo with the mid 1990s, while their Euro-scepticism takes us further back, and their plans for spending cuts to 1981. Yet it is the Conservatives who are the party of change and today's proposals from the Government will probably be dismissed as backward looking.

We see what we choose to see. I have just phoned one of the friends who saw the play with me at Scarborough to ask if she could remember the title. She could not even recall the scene or the theatrical device. Perhaps it never happened and maybe Hague and Brown did look ridiculous in those photos. But I am sure they did not. At least I think I am sure.