Anyone still unconvinced about the impact of the financial crisis and how far it has derailed the Government's legislative agenda had only to listen to the Queen's Speech at the state opening of Parliament yesterday. At less than seven minutes, it was one of the most perfunctory on record – a reflection of what had been omitted and pared down, to leave the economy front and central.
Still there was the implied disclaimer – Britain was being buffeted by events that were global rather than of the Government's making. Still there was the air of "we're in charge, so don't worry". But who could have imagined, ever, that a Government led by a man once described as the finest Chancellor of his generation would have to set something so basic as its "overriding priority" as "ensuring the stability of the British economy". That is how the Queen began.
Nor would it have been conceivable even this time last year that pride of place among the Bills to be enacted would be banking legislation designed to make statutory much that has hitherto been voluntary. The outline provides for the Bank of England to intervene when a bank gets into difficulties, for new insolvency regimes and for information to be collected and shared between the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. It envisages protection for bank depositors and fairer lending practices. You might well ask why such provisions were not introduced when the Bank of England was made independent. After Northern Rock, Bradford & Bingley, and the rest, however, and now the de facto seizing up of bank lending, the urgent need for change is incontestable. A sector that was assumed to be utterly solid – indeed, one foundation of Britain's economic success – has turned out to be unreliable. Efforts to remedy these failings have to be the priority for the new parliamentary year.
Otherwise, this year's Queen's Speech had a distinctly end of era feel. If, insofar as anything is predictable in politics or economics at present, the Prime Minister plans to go to the country in the summer of 2010, this was almost his Government's last legislative word. As such, it was a ragbag of measures, some laudable – such as tightening up the benefits system and the Bill to ensure public access to walk around the coast – others largely cosmetic, such as enshrining into law the pledge to end child poverty by 2020, discouraging binge-drinking and enhancing local democracy. The prime purpose here seemed to be to reduce the Government's vulnerability to Conservative attack, rather than promote any single coherent agenda.
As for the legislation shelved to make way for the banking and finance measures, there was some perverse consolation here for all those concerned about civil liberties. The chief casualty is the controversial Data Communications Bill – widely condemned as a charter for government snooping. The abolition of jury trials in coroner's courts is also being reconsidered. Every cloud, however black, it seems, has a silver lining.
Brief and muted as the speech was, it was not the Government's last word of the day. True to form, Gordon Brown had held back a shiny bauble to dangle before MPs during the debate – a two-year deferral of mortgage interest payments for those in financial difficulty. The declared purpose is to curb the rising number of repossessions. Whether it will do this will depend, as with so much of Mr Brown's financial wizardry, on the small print. As a diversion from a lacklustre Queen's Speech, though, it worked a treat.Reuse content