When the Queen attended Cabinet in December – as part of the Diamond Jubilee festivities – she playfully requested that her speech at the State Opening of Parliament be kept short.
She will have been satisfied yesterday, then. The address setting out the Government’s legislative programme came in at under eight minutes, less time than it took the fully caparisoned monarch and her spouse to progress into the Palace of Westminster and out again.
Not only was it short, the Queen’s Speech was also so well-trailed that the outlandish ceremonials attending its delivery eclipsed its largely familiar contents. But it is no less of a political weathervane, for all that. Indeed, even before the speech was read the influence of Ukip’s success at last week’s local elections was being denied – with the need for the text to be written before the poll took place cited as evidence.
Such claims are obfuscatory at best. Ukip – or the mélange of anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-politics rhetoric that it represents – has been on the march for months. The Government’s agenda may not have changed in response to last week’s vote, but it hardly needed to. The Tory half of the Coalition, at least, was well on the run already.
If there were any doubts, then the top billing given to immigration yesterday eliminates them. It is not yet clear how the proposed Bill will work, and it will take several months – and much Coalition wrangling – for the details to emerge. But hints dropped so far include limits on access to the NHS, easier deportation of foreign criminals, and landlords required to check the immigration status of their tenants.
Such policies may be couched amid the well-worn Tory paeans to hard work. There may even be cause for immigration reform. But the focus on our supposed over-generosity to foreign ne’er-do-wells adopts too much of the Ukip tone for comfort.
As interesting as what was in yesterday’s speech was what was not. There was no “snoopers’ charter” allowing the state to monitor internet use (vetoed by the Liberal Democrats). There was no Bill to put in law the target to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid (considered tactless at a time of austerity). But there were also no plans to introduce a minimum per-unit price for alcohol or to force cigarette companies to use plain packaging.
The Health Secretary might claim that such long-standing policies were only absent because final decisions are not yet made. More likely, though, they fell victim to Tory strategists’ desire to “knock the barnacles off the boat”. They say that that means streamlining the legislative programme so the Government can focus on the public’s core concerns. But it also means stripping out all but guaranteed vote-winners – which is very much the behaviour of a government feeling the pressure.
In fact, the Bills that will have the greatest impact – on social care, on pensions, and on consumer rights – have the lowest profile. But even these proposals, although important and far-reaching, will have little immediate bearing on the central issue affecting both people’s lives and the way that they will vote in 2015.
And that, of course, is the economy. There were odds and ends in the Queen’s Speech that the Government hopes will boost growth over the longer term – the paving legislation for HS2, for example, and the measures to cut red tape. But short-term economic recovery is more about Budgets than about new laws. Thus, while the forthcoming programme says much about the Government’s Ukip-shaped political nightmares, it does little to address the more quotidian fears of the rest of us.
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