In a normal year the Queen’s Speech would be the government’s moment to move on from a difficult Budget and a poorly received campaign for London Mayor. But, in five weeks and one day the nation will go to the polls for the EU referendum. Despite the impressive pageantry, this major political event has become, for one year only, an interlude.
This reality has shaped today’s speech – there is little benefit in announcing eye-catching initiatives if they will be drowned out by the referendum within hours. In many ways this is an enabling Queen’s Speech, setting in train a series of agendas on which the Prime Minister hopes to build a legacy. Its roots lie in his 2015 speech to the Conservative Party Conference when David Cameron overtly moved to occupy the centre ground, vowing to tackle the country’s deepest social problems – poverty, lack of opportunity, discrimination and extremism. The Bills announced today focus on these themes with a new Children and Social Work Bill to include measures on adoption and care leavers. The Prison and Courts Reform Bill offers unprecedented autonomy to prison governors in the hope it will improve rates of rehabilitation.
If the referendum is the stage on which politics is played till June 23rd, the Conservative leadership election provides much of the scenery. The Chancellor, George Osborne, will be pleased that Her Majesty was obliged to utter the very phrase “Northern Powerhouse”. The Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill will include a variety pack of measures aimed at securing a lasting economic recovery, presumably supported by the rollout of broadband to be enshrined in the Digital Economy Bill and the Better Markets Bill. There is a nod to the future too in the Modern Transport Bill which explicitly references the UK’s first spaceport and driverless cars.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, presumed to be another candidate for the leadership, now has the responsibility for bringing forward the Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill. Given the mudslinging around extremism from the Tories’ mayoral campaign and the Labour Party’s own anxieties around allegations of anti-Semitism, this could be a defining theme of the session. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, takes on the silver chalice of a British Bill of Rights – he will be busy both before and after the referendum.
Given the ongoing row over junior doctors and legislation fatigue, the NHS has been given a break, although the Queen did name check the seven-day NHS; the NHS (Overseas Visitors Charging) Bill is modest compared to recent Department of Health business.
Some measures have been long-trailed – the Bus Services Bill arrives a year after it was first in last year’s Queen’s Speech. Others, including the Local Growth and Jobs Bill, put onto the statute book measures announced in the Budget. The need to be seen to be doing something about dodgy tax arrangements is ticked off in the Criminal Finances Bill.
The vote on 23rd June and speculation about a reshuffle will no doubt continue to dominate the news. But anyone interested in the impact of policy should continue to keep an eye on the House of Commons as well – there is life in David Cameron’s ambitions yet, even if most people are looking the other way.