It took the pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s Speech and the State Opening of Parliament to call a temporary halt to the increasingly bitter EU referendum campaign. But even if hostilities were temporarily abated this morning, the issue of Europe still dominated the Westminster landscape as the Queen announced the Government’s programme for the coming year.
In total, Her Majesty announced 21 pieces of legislation to go through Parliament. And this is where the issue of Europe really manifested its influence on proceedings. In total, the articulation of the Government’s programme took around 15 minutes. Viewers could have been forgiven for thinking the agenda was distinctly light. And that the content of the programme was one that would enable the Tories to unify following the referendum campaign.
The highlights of the speech were the announcement of plans for a new ‘Bill of Rights’ to replace the Human Rights Act, and a reform of prisons that has been trumpeted by the Justice Secretary and Prime Minister in recent weeks.
Improving life chances was a recurring theme, and a number of commentators instantly took to Twitter to point to Her Majesty referring to plans to develop the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.
So what can we expect from the Government in the coming months? Initially, Europe will continue to dominate the headlines, not least because of the period of purdah that will come into effect at the end of the month. But once we are past 23 June, ministers can – and will – be expected to hit the ground running with a light but Tory-centric programme. This will include efforts to ensure foreign visitors are paying for the cost of the care they receive from the NHS, and an education bill that will retain the Government’s commitment to increasing the number of academies in England, albeit without the compulsory element that forced Nicky Morgan’s spectacular U-turn of a fortnight ago.
The Government will also be retaining its commitment to defence spending in line with the NATO target (two percent of GDP), ensuring law enforcement agencies have the powers necessary to combat extremism, and handing over greater autonomy and control over budgets and services to prison governors. This shake-up of the prisons system will also concerted efforts to improve the training and rehabilitation of prisoners.
As programmes go, critics will argue that the text of the speech was hardly Churchillian or the stuff of great political legacies. But it perhaps offered an insight into the Government’s approach over the coming months – one in which it attempts to meet manifesto commitments such as a seven-day NHS and greater academisation of schools, while attempting to heal some of the deep rifts appearing in the party over Europe.