The battle lines for the Queen's Speech had been drawn up well before the Monarch even entered the precincts of Parliament. On the government side were those who insisted, with Lord Mandelson, that this was a programme for governing, while the Conservative Opposition said it was a programme for electioneering, and the Liberal Democrats argued that it was a complete waste of time and should not be happening at all. In their own way, all three were right.
In so saying, though, they were all indulging in their own individual pieces of electioneering – and how, with the national vote only six months' away, could they not have been? To expect the Government not to set its legislative priorities with a view to the election would have been completely unrealistic. Just as unlikely was any thought that the Prime Minister would tear up all previous drafts of the Queen's Speech, and start afresh with a series of Bills to reform party funding and clean up Parliament.
This was a bright idea by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, which would have been enthusiastically embraced by the electorate. But it would have represented far too much of a gamble on the part of Gordon Brown, while helping the cause of the third party. With an election so close, this Queen's Speech, for the Government, was above all about not making mistakes. It was also about balancing legislative considerations and the manifesto to come, while not leaving open goals for the Opposition. In most of this it just about succeeded, though without much verve or conviction.
In almost every other respect, yesterday's Queen's Speech represented a combination of lost opportunities, wasted time, and barely disguised pandering to particular constituencies. Failure to include legislation to clean up Parliament was the most egregious missed chance. The absence of any firm intention to complete reform of the House of Lords or modernise the electoral process was disappointing, but understandable. Having dithered over Lords reform for so long, there was no reason for the Government to try – and probably fail – to rush it through in the dying days of this Parliament. As for electoral reform, this is too important to be an end-of-term measure. It should properly take its place as the centrepiece of an election manifesto.
An especially curious feature of the Queen's Speech was the intention to enshrine in law matters of policy, such as child poverty targets (missed once already), education provision, and – strangest of all – fiscal discipline. Why invoke the law at all to underline what demands political will? Why legislate to do what governments are elected to do, even in their last months of office? This has to be a waste of time – and, in the event that it might serve to encourage legally-aided litigation, a waste of public money as well.
The shadow of the election to come is not hard to divine in the Social Care Bill, designed to extend home care to a larger number, the Financial Services Bill (with its populist provision for altering bonus clauses in bankers' contracts), and several others. That legislation might be calculated to appeal to particular constituencies, however, does not make it automatically undesirable. The Equality Bill, the international ban on cluster bombs, or indeed extending social care need not be empty shells, and the Pre-Budget Report is yet to come. This Parliament may sit for at most another 70 days, but that is 70 days in which, given application and commitment, something useful can still be done.