LEADING ARTICLE:Waiting for the Budget

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The Independent Online
The Queen does not fit the usual profile of a political hack, whose chief aim is to score points against political opponents. Not for them crowns, bugles and regal finery. They are normally seen in crumpled suits, bleary-eyed and slightly down at heel. Yet the head of state was called upon yesterday to play low politics. She had to set out the Government's big idea: to make Labour squirm.

Her speech to Parliament described a menu for the forthcoming session which, ministers admit in private, has been chosen to give Labour indigestion. The crackdown on asylum-seekers and the benefits they receive is meant to make Labour look soft on immigration: it is called playing the race card. In a similar vein, the Government wants to shift the legal balance in favour of the prosecution by changing the rules on disclosure of evidence. It's the law and order card, aimed at showing that Labour is, after all, soft on crime. Likewise, proposals to make it easier for schools to become grant-maintained will focus attention on Labour's dilemma: the party opposes GM schools, the establishments where some members of the Shadow Cabinet like to educate their children. Highlighting Labour's ideological confusions and lingering hypocrisy has considerable merit, but these measures have little additional purpose. Britain is not overrun by refugees. Guilty defendants do not routinely run rings around prosecutors. And it is already simple for a school to opt out, provided parents approve. The Government is wasting parliamentary time in the greater cause of getting itself re- elected.

Such tactics are deeply depressing, though hardly unexpected at this stage in the parliamentary cycle. Even in the determinedly strategic days of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives had a doctrine that nothing really radical could be pushed through the Commons except in the first couple of years after an election.

The compensation is that among the 16 Bills outlined yesterday there are several sensible measures. Legislation allowing disabled people to receive state cash to choose equipment and services for themselves is a great innovation: people with chronic conditions often know better than the experts how to meet their needs. The decision to allow the Health Service Ombudsman to investigate the clinical judgement of doctors strikes a blow for public accountability, though many GPs, predictably, will hate being under the spotlight.

Lord Mackay's reforms of the laws governing divorce and domestic violence are humane and deserve to survive attacks from the Tory right. And ministers have rightly recognised, in their planned broadcasting legislation, that cross-media ownership needs to be relaxed to allow British companies to diversify and face foreign competition. But in setting limits on market shares, this legislation should also ensure that would-be monopolists, in particular the Murdoch empire, do not swamp local competition.

In these practical measures, there is no sign of a big innovative idea that the Conservatives will need if they are to recover from their deep unpopularity in time for the general election. There was little or nothing that addresses Britain's most pressing concerns: job insecurity, unemployment and the absence of an economic feel-good factor. The solutions have been left to the one forthcoming Bill that was not mentioned yesterday - the Finance Bill - which the Chancellor will unveil in his Budget on 28 November. On that, not yesterday's announcements, this Government's electoral future now hangs.

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