Steve Richards: Queen's Speech - a ragbag of eye-catching measures worthy of Tony Blair

There is as much chance of agreement on Lords reform as there is of the sun shining in May

Steve Richards
Wednesday 09 May 2012 23:11

Take a very close look at the Queen's Speech. Its contents will have as much impact on the fate of the Coalition as will the state of the economy. I am not referring to yesterday's Queen's Speech, a ragbag of measures. I refer to the first legislative programme announced soon after the general election, the most radical Queen's Speech in recent history. The proposals announced then are being implemented now or in the coming months. They contain unexploded landmines that could erupt at any time as David Cameron also faces a fragile economy and the revelatory Leveson Inquiry.

In comparison, yesterday's legislative programme was similar to those unveiled mid term in the New Labour era; a little bit of everything to generate headlines about a family friendly future. Some of the most eye-catching proposals will never take practical effect, as was also often the case under New Labour.

In particular, the House of Lords will survive the latest attempt at reform. Cameron's new formulation is that legislation depends on securing parliamentary consensus in advance. There is as much chance of agreement on this issue as there is of the sun shining in May. It will not happen. Nick Clegg knows this, but needs the protective fig-leaf of a bill before deciding what to do next. The Deputy Prime Minister is in charge of constitutional reform and feels passionately about the need to bring about change. Yet neither electoral reform nor a modernised second chamber will be part of his legacy. It is more straightforward taking this country to war than it is to update an outdated constitution.

The timidity over Lords reform stands as an emblematic contrast with the first Queen's Speech in May 2010. Then the whole event was deliberately understated, disguising revolutionary intent. Following that first legislative programme, the UK now has fixed-term parliaments, transforming the rhythms of electoral politics. It was never explained at the time why this particular reform was seen as such an overwhelming priority and must be put down to self-interest. Constitutional reform only happens when it is in the interests of those implementing the change. No doubt the fixed term seemed like a rock for the Coalition's leaders, a guarantee of power for five years. It could easily become a trap.

Another law from the first Queen's Speech, the one that compels governments to hold referendums on any transfer of power to the EU, is even more radical, making it impossible for this, or any future government, to sign up to new European treaties, because a referendum would be lost. This could have explosive consequences at some future point when a British government does wish to sign up to a treaty.

There is nothing in yesterday's Queen's Speech to compare with these two innovations and yet they got little attention then or since because they were competing with even more radical proposals for the NHS and welfare. The entire programme was choreographed quietly behind the scenes by Oliver Letwin, who had always hoped that the first legislative programme would bring about an irreversible and radical transfer of power away from the state. The lack of an overall majority for the Conservatives did not impede the realisation of his vision or lead to an alternative, more expedient approach.

Now with nervy ministers gasping for breath, the contrast is striking. A Lords reform bill is announced with trumpets blaring, and yet there will be no reform. More quietly, the way general elections are called and, separately, the nature of Britain's relations with Europe are changed forever by two of the lesser known acts from the Coalition's first revolutionary legislative programme.

In the case of yesterday's speech, the content has been known for some time. The political exchanges were slightly fresher only because they took place in a new political context. Suddenly, the Coalition is seen as flaky, while Labour and Ed Miliband are perceived at least as contenders for power rather than an inept irrelevance. After Miliband's speech yesterday, several of the sharpest and most impartial political commentators declared it his best. From what I can recall, Miliband has performed as well in the past, but now he is viewed through a different, more flattering prism and, therefore, he looks more impressive. Success feeds on itself and so does failure. Leaders change almost physically depending on what is happening in the opinion polls and in elections, or we think they change. In reality, Miliband delivered a knockabout speech without much content, as is traditional in these Queen's Speech debates, but because he is seen suddenly as more successful, the speech was deemed as more of a success, too.

Changing perceptions are curious. When William Hague wore a baseball cap at a time when he was regarded as a hopeless leader, he was seen as silly. I took a look at the same photo when Hague became supremely popular after he had resigned, the only former leader to be seen as a future leader, and he looked quite cool. Perceptions had changed. The photo had not.

But of far more significance than the changing theatrical dynamics and the substance of the second Queen's Speech is the continuing implementation of the first. The NHS reforms will be chaotic and costly at best, but could be worse than that. I also wonder about elected police commissioners in the light of the voters' rejection of mayors last week. Senior police officers are opposed. That is not necessarily a cause for concern in itself as they are against more or less any reform. And yet taken with the cuts in policing, the blurred lines of accountability that will arise from the change, the apparent indifference of voters to being "empowered" by the small state coalition, this becomes a potentially combustible mix.

The welfare reforms, though largely necessary, are also being implemented at a time of high unemployment, again an explosive combination.

Oddly, those who should be most pleased with the direction of the Coalition are the right wing of the Conservative party. Yet they are the most miserable part of the political spectrum. They make the Lib Dems look euphoric. Tory MPs urging Cameron to move even further to the right should remember what happened to Hague when he cast aside his baseball cap and got a crew cut for the 2001 election.;

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