Theresa May intended this Queen’s Speech to showcase a flowering of Erdington Conservatism. There would be radical reform of social care, the ban on selective school expansion would be lifted, free school lunches for most pupils would be replaced by free school breakfasts, the winter fuel allowance would be means-tested, the state pension triple lock would be scrapped, a free vote on foxhunting would take place…
Instead, a handful of dust runs through the Prime Minister’s fingers. Today’s papers have been briefed that almost none of this programme will be attempted, whether it requires legislation or not. There will be a mental health bill, a bill aimed at reducing domestic violence, a bill to end bogus whiplash claims, a bill to ban letting fees for renters. These are pickings as meagre as they are worthwhile. May does not seem to have given up entirely on capping energy bills, but the free market wing of her party, which might have been cowed by a big majority, will presumably now speak its mind.
Indeed, the Government is at the mercy of its backbenchers, who beat David Cameron up over disability benefits, tax credits, Sunday trading, school academisation, and a long list of measures. The Prime Minister inherited his majority. They then forced Philip Hammond to tear up an important part of his Budget – proposals for NICs reform. And May now has no majority at all. This leaves her at the mercy of the sacked, the rebellious, the egotistical, and those a few pennies short of the full pound sterling. Expect some Tory MPs to dangle more money for their constituents – particularly when it comes to any hospital reorganisation – as their price for loyalty in the lobbies, especially if more taxpayers’ money takes the low road to Belfast.
An optimist might counter that, since Parliament passes too many bad laws, it will be a relief to have fewer proposed. He could go on to say that Parliament will have quite enough on its plate with Brexit. There are apparently to be no fewer than eight bills that follow from our decision to leave the EU, including new laws on immigration, trade, farming, fishing – not to mention the Great Repeal Bill or, as some claim it will now be called, the Repeal Bill.
For good measure, he might add that even if no deal is agreed between the Government and the DUP, what ultimately counts is whether Nigel Dodds and company vote against the Queen’s Speech next week. To do so would be to risk a general election which might see May replaced by Jeremy Corbyn. The Orangemen will presumably not want to chance putting into Downing Street a man who in their view took the IRA’s side during the Troubles. Our optimist would say that greasing the DUP’s palm with silver would go down very badly in the rest of the UK, and that the Government is better off without a formal arrangement with them in any event. Furthermore, May’s position is buttressed by the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.
A pessimist – no, we will declare our hand: a realist – would reply that the Government has no majority; most Conservative MPs believe the Prime Minister should leave Number Ten before the next election; there is no obvious successor; Cabinet discipline is breaking down after a period of excessive restraint; Ministers’ Brexit negotiating position is weaker; a collapse in Tory confidence has left the Government with no coherent economic plan; fewer bills should not be confused with an inability to carry them through Parliament and that, whatever the Fixed Terms Act may say, administrations that go adrift tend to float towards the rocks – these being, in this case, another election. Oh, and the Party Chairman who presided over the worst Tory campaign in modern times is back at CCHQ.
Housing is a rare glimmer of silver amidst this dark cloud. This is because much of what Sajid Javid needs to do to build more homes doesn’t need primary legislation. We will return to the subject later this week. ConservativeHome wanted the new Government to build more houses and provide better technical education, rebalancing vocational and academic learning. As Tory MPs flee in terror before the newly mobilised mass of Labour-voting students, we can kiss goodbye to that.
As Mona Lott almost put it, “it’s being so cheerful as keeps us going”. This Queen’s Speech gives May so little cover that she may feel herself today to be a bit of a calendar girl.