For centuries the State Opening of Parliament was associated with the gunpowder, treason and plot of early November. So it will take more than a couple of years to get used to the Queen’s Speech coming around at a time when the days are lengthening, rather than shortening, and the long summer recess seems just around the corner. Already, though, it is possible to glimpse a drawback to the change. The shadow of other elections – for local councils, for the European Parliament – hangs more heavily than it would at another time of year. The risk is that short-term political calculations start to exert undue influence on the Government’s programme.
This year, regrettably, could be a case in point. With the success of the UK Independence Party in last week’s county council elections, the signs are that the Conservatives are feeling the pressure and being tempted to rearrange some of the Coalition’s priorities accordingly.
One central feature of tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech was expected to be reform and simplification of the state pensions system – a move which is as welcome as it has been slow in coming. But the way in which the Pensions minister reminded voters about this Bill yesterday was by disclosing that those living abroad would no longer qualify for a spouse’s pension. Nor, it transpired, will spouses resident in the UK; men and women, married or single, will qualify for individual pensions. But was the decision to release this partial angle designed to appeal to those drawn to Ukip by its xenophobia? The minister, Steve Webb, said not.
But this change, which will save a tiny fraction of the pensions budget, is not the only aspect of the Queen’s Speech, as it has been “spun” in advance, to address the state’s supposed generosity to non-citizens. There are expected also to be measures, set out in an Immigration Bill, to restrict foreigners’ rights in regard to deportation, as well as curbs on certain benefits. If this is designed to bring the UK into line with general European practice and prevent abuses, that is one thing. If it is a presentational tactic intended to dilute the appeal of Ukip, then ministers’ bluff needs to be called.
An innovation will be new rights for carers – but only to ask local authorities for help, not to receive it. There will also, it seems, be key omissions. While the Government has already backtracked on minimum alcohol pricing and plain packaging for tobacco, it may also duck out of legislation to fix foreign aid at 0.7 per cent of GDP. This does not mean that the Government will abandon this target in practice – merely that it will not be statutory. Not legislating, though, would look very like a late sop to the Tory right and to Ukip.
One question worth asking tomorrow is: what would this Queen’s Speech have looked like without Ukip’s recent rise? In other words, how far has Ukip, a party with no MPs, 12 MEPs and even now only 150 local councillors (out of several thousand), been allowed to dictate policy to a scared Prime Minister? People vote differently in local and general elections. They vote differently in mid-term from full-term. The last election produced a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The Government should not, and does not need to, behave as if it were in a three-party arrangement with Ukip.