Daniel Thornton is Programme Director at the Institute for Government.
Tomorrow, the second Queen’s Speech of this Parliament will set out the Government’s legislative programme. It has an ambitious agenda, such as creating a seven-day NHS, while ruling out raising taxes and promising to balance the books.
But in its first year, it has suffered three defeats in the Commons and more than 50 in the Lords. It has been forced to withdraw or heavily amend many measures – most notably £4.5 billion per year cuts in tax credits and £1.3 billion per year cuts in Personal Independence Payments for the disabled.
After a rough patch, the Prime Minister will hope that the Queen’s Speech demonstrates that the Government has momentum. However, as a result of divisions over Europe, its small majority has become no majority at all. The EU referendum has both increased the number of backbenchers willing to rebel and reduced the Government’s cohesion. And while winning elections increases Prime Ministers’ authority in Parliament, longevity diminishes it, because most backbenchers’ ambitions can’t be satisfied most of the time.
But even given these challenges, the Government can get better at handling its business in Parliament. A new Institute for Government paper, Government Under Pressure, says there are two areas it needs to work on:
- Whips: The whips’ pragmatic advice about what is achievable needs to be set against Ministers’ ambitious ideas and disinclination to compromise. Optimism bias is a well-established feature of project management – and it applies to Ministers too. It’s the whips job to counter this. In addition, before a White Paper is published, Ministers will often have gone through an internal dialogue in Government. This means their views have often already hardened by the time an announcement is made. In a small majority world, the PM needs to support the whips’ pragmatism.
- Backbenchers: There are lots of pressures on Ministers’ time which keep them away from Parliament. Civil servants manage Ministers’ diaries, and they are naturally focussed on government business. So despite Ministers’ intentions, plans to spend more time chatting to MPs in the tea room get squeezed out. But Ministers must prioritise spending more time with backbenchers to test out their ideas. Nicky Morgan has demonstrated what happens if you don’t build relationships and test out ideas with backbenchers, and indeed build coalitions outside Parliament.
The Government also needs to recognise the pressure of austerity on public services. It decided to balance the budget by 2020, and to put the burden of this adjustment on public spending rather than taxes. It is more challenging to reform public services which are having their spending reduced, both because cuts generate noise and opposition among stakeholders, and because the services’ management capacity is also constrained by cuts.
The Queen’s Speech is likely to address adoption and prisons. In the case of adoption, children’s services have faced spending reductions in the last six years as part of the wider pressure on local authority spending, and will continue to face reductions over the next few years. Meanwhile, Michael Gove has signalled that he plans to produce draft legislation on prisons, which will provide an opportunity to work through the proposals. But prisons have also had significant cuts, and will have more of the same. Against this background, proposals to reform adoption and prisons may both have a challenging reception, and might not achieve their objectives.
The Government must recognise the enormous challenges it now faces. It is making big spending cuts and attempting far-reaching public service reforms, and the strain is showing. It must consult and build alliances before rushing ahead with more ambitious reforms in the Queen’s Speech.