Nick Clegg: Cancel the Queen's Speech – and save democracy

Nigel Morris,Deputy Political Editor
Monday 16 November 2009 01:00

Nick Clegg today issues a call for this week's Queen's Speech to be scrapped and replaced by an emergency programme of reform designed to "clean up politics once and for all".

Writing in The Independent, the Liberal Democrat leader dismisses the pageant as a "waste of everyone's time" as Parliament will only sit for another 70 days before it is dissolved for the general election expected in the spring.

The Queen's Speech this year will set out plans to boost parents' and patients' rights, tackle knife crime, improve social care for the elderly and trim bankers' bonuses.

Wednesday's event, which traces its roots back more than 500 years, will be the 55th occasion that the Queen has presided over the state opening of Parliament. A major security operation has already been mounted in preparation for the monarch making the short journey from Buckingham Palace to Westminster to read out a list of the Government's planned Bills. The Queen's Speech is an important event in the political calendar because it gives the government of the day the chance to spell out its legislative programme.

But Mr Clegg denounces this year's ceremony as "based on a complete fiction" because Gordon Brown is running out of time to enact his proposed legislation. He says: "The Queen's Speech will be dressed up as the way to 'build Britain's future' when it will be little more than a rehearsal of the next Labour Party manifesto, an attempt to road-test policy gimmicks to see whether they might save this Government's skin.

"It is a waste of everyone's time, and should be cancelled in favour of an emergency programme of political reform. That is the only job this rump of a Parliament is fit for."

The Liberal Democrat leader calls for the Commons to agree an action plan to reform Parliament in the few months until MPs leave for the election battle. The first step would be to approve proposals to be set out by the Public Administration Committee to curb the power of the Commons whips and give more influence to backbench MPs. That should be followed, Mr Clegg says, by moves to introduce fixed-term parliaments, agree a code of conduct for election candidates, sack corrupt MPs, make the House of Lords fully-elected and reform the Commons voting system.

"These changes would be a tall order, but with political will they could finally transform our threadbare democratic institutions," writes Mr Clegg.

"Instead of being just a sorry footnote to a shameful year at Westminster, these months would become a moment of great change in British political history."

Mr Clegg's suggestion was greeted with scorn last night by Downing Street sources. They said: "The Queen's Speech this week will set out the Government's priorities for the remainder of the parliamentary session. But we are very clear these priorities are also the people's priorities and the Liberal Democrats and other parties will support them, there will be absolutely no problems getting them through.

"Either way the Government is determined to deliver on these Bills as we know we can never rest from building a better future for Britain."

Prof Phil Cowley, of the School of Politics at Nottingham University, said there was usually a sense of events petering out in pre-election Queen's Speeches. The famous Tory diarist, Sir Henry "Chips" Channon, who died half a century ago, lamented the "odour of dissolution" hanging over the end of a parliament.

Prof Cowley said: "The final session of a parliament before an election tends to be very artificial – everyone knows the end is coming. The Queen's Speech will be partly about the manifesto and partly about trying to establish the battle-lines with the opposition.

"I would abolish the Queen's Speech altogether. It performs one useful function in that it forces parties to think about what they want to introduce. But amid all the pomp of the occasion they tend to go for headline-grabbing measures." John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, will break with tradition at his first Queen's Speech by wearing tails, rather than court dress. He was the first Speaker to ditch the old-fashioned costume of ruffled shirts and tights to chair the House of Commons, instead wearing a suit and tie.

He revealed yesterday that he will wear the Speaker's ornate black and gold state robe at Wednesday's ceremony to mark the beginning of the parliamentary year. But underneath he will wear a more modern black morning coat and a House of Commons tie.

Re-opening the House: Political pageantry

*The Queen's speech is an annual tradition which takes place at the opening of Parliament, following a recess or a General Election. It begins with a search for any hidden explosives in Parliament's cellars, in a nod to the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

It is given in the presence of Members of both the Commons and the Lords. The Commons is summoned to hear the speech by Black Rod. In a symbol of its independence, the door to the Chamber is slammed in Black Rod's face when he calls them and is not opened until he has knocked on the door with his staff three times.

The speech is written by the Cabinet and it sets out the policies the Government wishes to pursue in the coming year. The Queen reads the whole speech in the same tone of voice so as not to hint at any favour for or displeasure at what she is announcing. Members of all parties are expected to listen in silence, rather than cheer or heckle.

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