Looking back, it seems strange to think that Boris Johnson claimed he needed to prorogue parliament for five weeks to prepare his first Queen’s Speech. What finally emerged, after all the drama, was a pretty thin piece of work.
A Queen’s Speech is supposed to set out what a government hopes to achieve in a parliamentary session, but this was clearly intended as curtain call for an election. If Johnson has his way, this parliament won’t sit for long enough to implement the content of the speech.
There was a roughly average number of bills put forward in this speech but many of them were very vague. The nearest to large-scale legal reform is the proposed Immigration Bill. Far from simplifying immigration rules, however, this is likely to make the process more complex and bureaucratic. If past experience is anything to go by, it is also likely to be ineffective. Like most of the programme in the Queen’s Speech, it looks more like a soundbite than a well-conceived policy.
Much attention naturally focused on what the speech said about Brexit. It included a subtle change of language around Johnson’s “do or die” pledge to leave the EU by October 31. Instead, this date simply became a “priority”. After all, the legislation also announced on trade, agriculture and fisheries will be required to provide legal clarity after Brexit – and there seems little prospect of any of that passing before the end of the month.
Wooing a certain kind of voter
Given that the government is in a minority of 43 and has lost every vote so far in the House of Commons, the whole speech had something of the flavour of “fantasy government”. The opposition majority may not be able to propose legislation, but they can certainly dispose of it, should they be able to agree among themselves to take action.
They might be particularly minded to vote down the hardline law-and-order measures on sentencing and foreign offenders announced in the speech. The latter, in particular, reflects the exaggerated social anxieties of strongly right-wing voters which the Leave campaign carefully fed. In a Queen’s Speech almost entirely constructed with an eye to the election Johnson is desperate to hold, its inclusion indicates that he has no intentions yet of trying to appeal to more centrist electors.
Proposals on serious violence similarly look like electoral window-dressing in face of a moral panic about knife crime, and seem designed to shift blame onto cash-strapped local authorities rather than seriously address the issue.
There was also a sketchy proposal to require people to present ID when they go to vote. This is an answer to a non-existent problem given that there was only one conviction for electoral fraud in 2017, the year of the last general election.
Concerns have naturally been raised that this proposal is not about tackling such issues, but about disbarring certain voters from the polls. After all, similar policies in the US are estimated to have kept 1 million disproportionately African-American electors from voting in the 2016 presidential election, effectively costing Hillary Clinton certain key states.
That ethnic minorities will also be among the victims of such policies in the UK as well was suggested by a 2015 study showing that they were over-represented among the 3.5m British citizens who do not have any official form of photo ID. But they are not the only such group. When Conservatives themselves realise many of their elderly and upper working-class Leave voters also do not have passports or other forms of ID this might be a proposal which gets no further.
On the keep list
There are, however, some things in the Queen’s Speech that opposition MPs will be disinclined to dump. Legislation that opposition MPs have long called for, such as enabling restaurant staff to keep tips, is uncontroversial. The proposed Environment Bill is also widely seen as important, though the government’s current proposals are likely to be regarded as inadequate.
If we get that far I would expect such legislation to be strengthened very substantially by amendments by opposition parties, for instance, to embed environmental standards firmly in law. Complex schemes with, as yet, scant detail, such as the pensions proposals, may well also end up being extensively amended.
The speech did at least feature one promise Boris Johnson has kept. Among the various bills mentioned was the revival of the long-awaited Domestic Violence Bill following his unlawful prorogation of parliament. It was joined by most of the other pieces of legislation killed by that prorogation, including measures to relax divorce laws and to introduce tougher sentences for animal cruelty.
Of course, all these revived bills could swiftly disappear again into legislative limbo if Johnson gets his way and manages to hold the election. At present it seems highly unlikely that this parliament will run its course. If it does, much of the legislation resulting from the Queen’s Speech will probably be shaped substantially by what the opposition parties allow to pass, or choose to amend.
In the meantime, it seems quite possible that Johnson could be facing yet another defeat in the House of Commons when MPs vote on this Queen’s Speech. The last government to be defeated on what was then the King’s Speech was that of Stanley Baldwin in January 1924. Baldwin immediately resigned, paving the way for the first Labour government. The chances of Johnson resigning and paving the way for a Corbyn government, however, seem pretty remote.