Theresa May’s 2017 Queen’s speech was certainly not the one she planned to make when she called a snap general election. Her original aspiration in triggering the vote was to secure an electoral mandate in her own right. She wanted to strengthen her hand in both domestic and international affairs by increasing her parliamentary majority.
However, the opposite effect has transpired. May now stands before parliament as a much-weakened figure. She has lost her majority and her grip on the premiership is under increasing scrutiny from disgruntled backbenchers within her own party.
With her electoral gamble having so spectacularly backfired, the content of May’s legislative offering is now notably reduced in its ambition and scope. Much of the original offering from the Conservative manifesto has been stripped away – from social care funding reforms to grammar schools. Some have gone as far as suggesting that a “zombie parliament” lies ahead, in which no significant legislation is passed before a new election takes place.
Negotiations with the DUP have dragged on for much longer than expected, leaving May without a firm commitment from the smaller party to prop up her minority government. And with public spending implications attached to such talks, a sense of growing uncertainty has hung over the parliamentary spectacle of the Queen’s speech. Some doubted that it could even go ahead.
Nevertheless, with a degree of pragmatism that runs deep inside the Conservative Party’s DNA, the prime minister appears to have accepted that given the new House of Commons arithmetic, much of what she sought to achieve can no longer be delivered. Compromises are in the process of being made to secure parliamentary stability, and on this basis, the party’s 2017 manifesto is somewhat defunct. The same goes for May’s aim of carving out a new and radical model of Conservatism in her own name.
“The show must go on,” as they say, but it is a much-changed policy offering in parliament. Gone (possibly for good) are the bold and controversial plans for a network of new selective grammar schools. These had generated much opposition over the past year but were one of the prime minister’s most personal policy goals. Also removed is the equally controversial proposal to abolish free infant school meals. This was a policy established during the 2010-15 coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The plan to scrap it was said to have been a vote loser on the doorstep in 2017.
The prime minister’s ill-advised manifesto pledge for a free vote on foxhunting has also vanished. This was another issue which seemed to turn off a significant number of voters from the Conservative message in recent weeks.
The end of austerity?
Amidst a broader and ongoing schools and NHS funding crisis, there is also much talk of a relaxation of austerity politics. This philosophy has prevailed for the past seven years but now also appears to have been a notable factor in the Conservatives’ general election misfortunes. Despite this, there are no clear goals laid out for improving key public services. Labour MPs have been quick to point that out.
Proposals for social care and energy price reform, both of which generated much election campaign controversy, have also been put on the back-burner. In short, May’s social policy agenda appears to be in tatters, although her focus on improving mental health provision remains. On a positive note, this could well succeed with bipartisan cross-party support.
What has not gone away of course is the all-encompassing issue of Brexit, which is the dominant theme of this Queen’s speech. Leaving the EU would have dominated the political landscape whatever the electoral outcome of June 8 and indeed, eight of the 24 legislative bills in this Queen’s speech are Brexit related.
But the general election result has been interpreted by some as a rejection of the hard Brexit being offered by the prime minister and enthusiastically promoted by the right wing of the Conservative party. So, whether a softer version of Brexit materialises in response to this remains to be seen.
Overall, there is no doubt that Brexit is the prevailing issue of the months and even years ahead, and this is reflected in the 2017 Queen’s speech. It was the issue that Theresa May hoped would swing the 2017 general election convincingly in the Conservatives’ favour, but voters instead seemed to focus on growing concerns over public services and the associated funding questions that have arisen over recent years.
While there is no clear solution to such concerns in these parliamentary proposals, such public discontent could certainly grow as Brexit negotiations progress. It’s therefore somewhat alarming that the Queen’s speech so starkly illustrates the plight of a wounded prime minister about to preside over Britain’s departure from the EU, with her newly exposed domestic flank leaving both her and the country in a more vulnerable position than ever abroad.