Expect to be mugged by reality: A 10-minute Queen's Speech with good old 'back to basics' as its theme. Does anyone know what that means? Will it change the national mood of cynicism about politics?

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THE MOST dramatic political events of the year ahead are rarely in the Queen's Speech. She tends to miss them out, being, after all, a Queen and not a clairvoyant. For although each legislative session begins with the illusion of total control - 'My Government will . . .' - every one is then ambushed repeatedly by the real world. The pageantry of Imperial power protects and surrounds the grand confidence trick of executive omnipotence - two layers of genteel parliamentary propaganda. But no one takes it terribly seriously and the world goes on.

For if a conservative is, as the Americans say, a liberal who has been mugged by reality, there can be few liberals left in this administration. The muggings come week by week; the by-elections, leaks, resignations, the hastily-drafted Bills responding to unforeseen events ('other measures will be laid before you') and the crises overseas. This year, the three biggest questions already apparent are the Northern Irish peace process, the local and European elections, and the related matter of the Prime Minister's survival in office.

But if much of the real political argument carries on outwith the 13 Bills announced yesterday, it is an important part of the game to find a unifying idea for each legislative session. Like Budgets, manifestos, and Churchill's famous pudding, each Queen's Speech must have a theme. This one, 'back to basics', is more important than most: it is the ground John Major chose months ago on which to defend his embattled premiership.

'Back to basics' has got the Government talked about, which is a prime purpose of slogans. But beyond that, it has not had a happy first few months. Its authors envisaged it as a way of binding the Conservative Party together and reasserting ordinary popular values against the sophisticated theories of middle-class professionals who had been proved wrong. But it was quickly appropriated by right-wing ministers who went charging off against single mothers, or announced, wildly, that all government regulations should be destroyed. Instead of being about common sense, it started to sound as if it was a figleaf for Thatcherite ideology.

Privately, a number of eminent leftish Tories were either dismissive or depressed about the new moralism from Number Ten. Kenneth Clarke said bluntly that the thing had been hijacked by the single-mothers row. The Prime Minister had to row back and defend his liberal reputation, which he did in his Guildhall speech on Tuesday. 'Back to basics', it turned out, was not about hammering single mothers but was a broad and bland agenda - sound money, decent education and so on. At this still- early stage, the whole initiative seemed on the point of collapse - unfocused and confusing.

That was certainly the conclusion drawn by John Smith, judging from his speech yesterday. He relied on derision. 'Back to basics' was a political sham. No one knew what it meant, everyone was baffled, it was quite hilarious. Ho, ho.

He got the best of the debate, as he generally does, but he may be making a key strategic mistake. Mr Major's dullish performance came alive when he counter-attacked in defence of 'back to basics': of course Labour didn't understand what basic values meant, he shouted, they voted against every tough penalty on crime, they voted against tests in schools, they didn't want people to have choice in education, health and pensions, they were out of touch with the values and instincts of the British people.

Yes, pretty rich, given the Government's record on crime and education thus far, but you start to see how Labour could find itself on the wrong side of the rhetoric it so blithely dismisses. The fact that Mr Smith automatically spoke with the voice of the unions on the proposed changes to teacher training, describing it as 'the de-skilling of the teaching professions' was a further small but significant pointer.

Tony Blair is adopting an interestingly different strategy: in a speech at yesterday's IPPR-Independent on Sunday conference, he argued that 'Even if the right in politics appear to have descended into some disarray over 'back to basics', the left should not let this argument drop, but should rather use it as an opportunity to explain its own political philosophy.'

Could 'back to basics' be appropriated by the left? Mr Blair clearly thinks so. On family values, for instance, he argues that 'it is a matter of common sense to say that a child brought up in a stable and well-balanced family is more likely to develop well than one who is not, and that it can be harder . . . to bring up children alone'. But he goes on to say that families don't live in a vacuum: 'Governments do not raise children, families do. But government can help to provide the infrastructure of hope and opportunity in which families are given the best chance of success.'

'Back to basics' may be a jumble of prejudice or a shrewd insight, but it certainly matters. The Queen's Speech virtually sets up a series of set-piece confrontations between the Conservatives and various special-interest or lobbying groups, whether they be teachers, criminal lawyers, consumer groups, unions protesting against the abolition of old health and safety regulations, or the public-sector defenders of regional airports.

These all comprise, I guess, what Mr Major called 'fashionable opinion'. If his Government wins those arguments, then the legislative programme, in so far as it can, will have helped to rebuild his authority. If it loses them and ministers are forced to retreat in the face of hard evidence and well-marshalled arguments, it is hard to see what is left for the Major administration, bar the slim but glittering chance of a breakthrough in troubled Northern Ireland.

For the assassins are always there, in the midst of the pomp. Mr Major's apparent lurch to the right during the party conference season infuriated and depressed some of his erstwhile supporters on the Tory left. He needs them even more than the right for the simple reason that, while Mr Clarke is the obvious successor, no challenge is likely to come from the Thatcherites. Mr Major, a shrewd tactician always, now seems to be rebuilding bridges there, but distrust remains.

Queen's Speeches are a simple, nostalgic occasion. Those people who thrill to military music and yearn for a lost age of glory can stand in the sunlight and cheer. But it is fantasy, a spit in the face of this less-deferential, insecure world. Governments, too, can pretend, however briefly, to be coherent and purposeful, leading a grateful nation to an always-brighter future. Prime Ministers can clatter past the whole range of domestic and foreign policy in the grand old fashion, attended by simple assertions and polished proposals for legislation. But the future has always been less glittering than promised, the legislation so often misfires, the leader's authority vanishes in laughter. The mugger Reality is waiting round the corner with a leer.

(Photograph omitted)

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