The Queen’s Speech, essentially, is a government’s to-do list. Whether the government of the day is strong or not, every year it includes a number of things they’d rather not do. There were quite a few of these in 2015 – reminding us that the narrow Conservative victory in the general election was only the beginning of the party’s troubles.
Take the EU referendum bill, for example. Now that Labour has accepted the need for a vote on EU membership, there should be no problem getting one through parliament. But the SNP wants each country of the UK to be treated separately, so that if England votes heavily against continued membership Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland wouldn’t have to follow it to the Brexit.
That would make the vote on the EU a referendum on the future of the UK – a distinctly nasty prospect for Cameron, not least because the SNP argument can’t be laughed off.
Pick and choose
Then there’s the little matter of a Scotland bill, which would concede more powers north of the border. The UK government has lost control of the devolution agenda: now the SNP will be able to browse through the list of possible concessions and make a big fuss if it doesn’t get the ones it likes. A bit like the UK’s “pick and choose” attitude to the EU, really – and another thing Cameron would rather not have to do.
Among the more conventional stuff, at least plans to extend childcare should command widespread support. But then there’s the proposal to tighten the law on strike action. Apart from the risk of looking vindictive, the danger with this one is that the logic which demands a certain percentage vote in support of action could also be applied to governments.
If you need 40% support before you can call a strike, surely a government should think twice before launching divisive policies when it only got 36.9% of the popular vote? Cameron will have to hope to get the debates on this subject over quickly while no-one is watching.
Finally, there’s the proposed bill to make it illegal to increase certain taxes. As we all know, this promise, made in an hour of Conservative desperation during the election campaign, is utterly pointless. We also know that this government would do almost anything – grant independence to Scotland, say, or adopt a constructive attitude to the EU – rather than raise taxes that affect their natural supporters.
But there are foreseeable circumstances in which even George Osborne might have to resort to a tax hike, and there are only so many pasties or bedrooms he can tax. In those circumstances, the repeal of the government’s majestic Act to Ban Tax Rises will be rushed through in a few uncomfortable minutes.
At least the Cameron government has spared itself the task of replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, at least for the time being.
But when that legislation is finally ready, its parliamentary passage might seem like a picnic compared to some of the things the government already has on its plate. It will certainly be an eventful parliamentary year for the Tories, tasked with hauling their unwieldy and awkward agenda over the line while the other parties scour the streets looking for potential leaders who can handle a bacon sandwich.