We set out last week on this site what a Social Justice Queen’s Speech might look like. It would take action to strengthen family stability: Andrea Leadsom set out a detailed programme, along the same lines as our ideas, on ConservativeHome last Saturday. It would focus on improving the worst-performing schools. It would tilt the balance in planning towards more housing growth, and see the public sector building more homes for sale. It would seek to measure social justice and injustice in Britain – and, above all, make a big move towards the former by dismantling the spending ring-fence that protects spending on older richer retired people at the expense of younger poorer working ones. How does the speech look in that light?
First, there is to be a Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill. That holds out the possibility of some of the changes that the country needs to see. There is also to be a Children and Social Work Bill – David Cameron and Edward Timpson have long been seized by the belief that the adoption system needs a major overhaul and, as a flagship measure, a Prisons and Court Reform Bill. Were Michael Gove not in place, with his new ideas about reform, it is hard to believe it would be in place. But it is – and David Cameron can truly claim, in some respects at least, that this is, as he puts it, a One Nation Queen’s Speech.
Second, there is no sign in the speech of a major plan to help family stability of the kind that Leadsom has championed. The ring-fencing is still there. That one would expect. But there is no sign of the Government trying to think itself out of this self-imposed restraint in the medium-term. In these respects, the social justice element of the speech is weak. There are other proposals that are useful, such as a Bill to improve police accountability. There are others still that look to fall short of what the Conservative Manifesto suggested, as in the case of the Bill of Rights. And there are some that look more like the kind of plans one would see at the end of a Parliament than near the beginning, such as a National Citizen Service Bill.
This leads one to a third point. The speech contains the good, the not-so-pressing, and the ugly (we have our doubts about the extremism proposals), but the most important question of all is: just how much of it can the Government get through? The Lords mauled the last Housing Bill and George Osborne’s tax credit plans. Tory backbenchers helped to sink Sunday trading change and fear of them scuppered pensions reform. Academisation all-round, one of the main elements of the Education For All Bill planned for this Queen’s Speech, has already been watered down. Cameron is precious close to having no working majority, and the rancorous aftermath of a Remain vote (if it happens) won’t help.
All in all, the speech is a bit of a holding exercise until after June 23. We will get a clearer sense then of what the Government wants, and what is possible. There is a case for saying that is no bad thing if the legislative load in this speech turns out to be light: Ministers are clearly not in a position to proceed with parts of it yet, such as the anti-extremism proposals, and there is arguably too much legislation in any event. But governments need laws to ensure that reform happens. And this administration needs the working majority that is already vanishing. It isn’t clear that even an emphatic Remain win would provide it.