8 October 2019

Labour risks walking into a Queen’s Speech trap

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The Queen’s Speech is being delivered next week. However, it has already been written. We know this as it has to has to be written on goatskin paper (a thick and ornate parchment that no longer uses any actual animal hide) and the ink takes several days to dry. Even though Her Majesty wears gloves it would be unfortunate to get blotches of ink everywhere.

The timing is unusual in a couple of ways. We didn’t have a Queen’s Speech last year – part of the debilitating paralysis which was the hallmark of Theresa May’s premiership. That means the parliamentary session, which began in June 2017, and is finally put out of its misery this week is the longest in almost 400 years. But also it is generally anticipated that a General Election will come very soon, before the measures announced can be enacted.

Opposition MPs have their attack lines ready. The Queen’s Speech will be mere “Conservative election propaganda.” What is the point of bothering with it? All that pomp and pageantry amounting to nothing.

It strikes me that this attack has the most breathtaking audacity. On September 10th the Government proposed to MPs that a General Election should take place on October 15th. Labour and the Lib Dem MPs abstained. Boris Johnson accused them of “preposterous cowardice”. Had they backed the motion then we would not be having this curious timetable of a Queen’s Speech just before an election. Is Parliament meant to drone along indefinitely as a pure talking shop?

My hunch is that the Queen’s Speech will have rather more substance than just such worthy platitudes and electioneering slogans. Some will have advised Boris to play it safe. The plea will have been to avoid distracting from the core messages of Brexit and spending increases. There will certainly be a concern for the proposed measures to be popular. Yet one key Boris theme is to end the “drift” under Theresa May. He will want to restore the reforming zeal we had under David Cameron.

No Government – least of all a Conservative one – can credibly say that increased spending is all that is needed. The disruption from the Extinction Rebellion protesters this week offers an example. What is the point of having more police officers if they are just observers? They need the power and equipment to uphold the law. They need to be given the message from their commanders to do so. Naturally there were particularly complications in different operational scenarios. But the determination must be there for those challenges must be overcome for public order to maintained. Passive policing needs to end.

The same point applies to the NHS and all the other areas where extra billions have been pledged.

Another key theme should be freeing up the housing supply and boosting home ownership. Then the passage on Brexit should look beyond it being delivered to what use will be made of the new powers once we have them. Improving animal welfare by banning the export of live animals has already been put forward. Let’s have some more. It’s not as if there is a shortage of EU regulations to choose from.

Everyone will have their own shopping list. But let us suppose that the Queen’s Speech next week achieves that balance of being popular, radical and consistent with Conservative principles. The following week it will be put to the vote. Opposition MPs will be overwhelmingly likely to shuffle into the No lobby. Some whipless Conservatives might vote with the Government so it could be close but the odds are the Government will be defeated.

If that transpires then the media pundits will tell us how disastrous it is for Boris Johnson, how he has been humiliated, he has lost all authority. The Labour MPs will cheer, perhaps even favour us with a spirited rendition of The Red Flag. Yet for from a political triumph, they will have walked into a trap.

First of all. the Labour and Lib Dem MPs will have voted against a package that most voters regard as sensible. YouGov polling found general approval for the policies trailed at the Conservative Party Conference. For instance, giving more police officers Tasers was backed by 57%, with 27% against.

The Conservatives will state that they are putting forward a programme to bring the country forward. “Labour and Lib Dem MPs have voted against improving schools and hospitals, better transport, a cleaner environment, help to small business, more housing, giving the police the power they need to fight crime….,” will be the charge.

That is reasonably familiar partisan knockabout. But what will resonate with any fair-minded voter is the absurdity of stopping the Government from governing while refusing to agree to an election. It is hard to be inspired by gridlock. An attempt to delay yet further with some supposed “Government of National Unity” would merely increase the public dismay and impatience. Everybody knows that the only reason they are resisting an election is due to the fear that they would lose. So MPs are doing the wrong thing for the wrong motive.

Last month the Prime Minister declared: “It is completely impossible for Government to function if the House of Commons refuses to pass anything that the Government propose”. Under such circumstances refusing an election was “a great dereliction of their democratic duty”.

The Queen’s Speech is the key statement of the Government’s legislative priorities. In voting it down Labour and Lib Dem MPs will be proving Boris Johnson’s point in the most spectacular manner possible.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist