In ‘normal times’ Westminster’s high ceremonial, the Queens Speech, is intended to showcase the government’s agenda for the coming term. Today it’s quite the reverse, with the Monarch and Black Rod employed as an eye catching distraction from the main business of the week. Rather than mighty Monday with its set piece tradition, parliament watchers are all focussed on the less predictable choreography of what’s quickly become dubbed ‘super’ Saturday. Although, given what’s at stake I’d prefer solemn Saturday.
Of course the government is quite within its rights to offer up a new programme. It must appear to have a prospectus that ranges beyond Brexit even if we all know that without a deal this week everything is up for grabs. And, given the recent self-serving rewriting of constitutional norms and parliamentary procedure employed by opponents of Brexit from across the political spectrum one can’t blame the Prime minister and his team now for co-opting the Queens Speech as a manifesto launch. It is obvious from the top line being briefed by the Conservative Party that the main aim of this Queen’s Speech is to bolster the northern seats strategy. Measures that seem tough on crime, foreign criminals and immigration are intended to play well in Brexit supporting, Labour marginal constituencies that the Conservatives must win if they can hope for a majority after a general election expected this side of Christmas.
Betting the farm on northern seats may be politically expedient but it’s also highly risky. So the bet has to be hedged and here’s where other areas of the Queens Speech – those that will likely get little attention this week become more interesting. There will be few details – but a significant flagging of intent to take up again the wholescale reform of social care, the territory Theresa May bravely but disastrously stumbled into insufficiently prepared in 2017. There will be a big rethink on the way that train franchises are awarded. This is vital on a practical level because passengers rightly feel let down and also on a longer term philosophical level because the Party of the market has to show that private enterprise and competition, correctly enabled and regulated, will have better outcomes than Corbyn’s reflexive nationalisation plans. And devolution, but not of the national variety, also features with plans to introduce more Metro Mayors. Whilst I have reservations about the accountability of such new structures it’s a headline policy that has been championed by one-nation Tories and non-Tories alike, so challenges the reductive analysis that ‘Johnsonism’ is reactionary right wingery.
Ultimately though even if today’s Queen’s Speech resembled one of those fake tomes decorating a theme pub, fake-leather bound but with nothing between the covers, it hardly matters. The government has no majority. Even the most worthy of policy announcements won’t make it through the House. This is a manifesto masquerading as a Queen’s Speech because without an election it serves no legislative purpose.