A Queen’s Speech to reflect a sombre Britain
A low-key Queen’s Speech delivered on Wednesday reflected the somber mood of the nation, governed by an embattled prime minister and still coming to terms with the grief of the Grenfell fire tragedy and four terrorist attacks. In the wake of Theresa May’s failed general election gamble, British politics is in a state of paralysis. The government has no working majority in the House of Commons; the Conservative party’s policy ambitions have been thwarted. And yet, Britain faces a historic test as it prepares to leave the EU. The arduous Brexit negotiations were launched this week and the UK’s weak position was underlined by its instant acceptance of the EU’s sequencing agenda.
The government’s programme delivered by the Queen was notable for what it lacked. Many of the Conservatives’ main manifesto pledges — on grammar schools, foxhunting, social care reform, the state pension “triple lock”, reforming free school meals and scrapping fixed-term parliaments — were abandoned. Even the proposed state visit by Donald Trump was left out. Instead, the speech proposed several consultations, a review of counterterrorism legislation and a range of consumer protection proposals.
True, much of Mrs May’s original campaign manifesto was flawed. That some of the most ill-advised elements have been dropped is no bad thing. For example, the proposed reforms to social care were ill-conceived; the pledge to debate foxhunting and bring back grammar schools were reminiscent of a sepia-tinged age.
Yet in the speech, there was also an acceptance of the legislative challenges of Brexit and the mountain of legislation required to achieve the least disruptive transition out of the EU. The belated recognition of the complexity of the Brexit process is to be welcomed. Mrs May took the wise, if irregular, decision to hold a two-year parliament to give the maximum possible time for parliamentary debate. Eight bills will need to be passed — and it is by no means a given that all of the laws will be in place by March 2019.
Steering the bills through a hung parliament will be messy. Some legislation may be challenged, some may be amended. Still, the debate on Brexit will give MPs the opportunity to have their say. Too often, the government has dismissed the need for scrutiny, falling back on empty slogans such as “Brexit means Brexit.”
Mrs May’s monopoly over the terms of Brexit has also been broken. At least one leading voice in government is more seriously engaged with the challenges ahead. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, used his Mansion House speech on Tuesday to lower public expectations and warn of the uncertainties of Britain’s departure from the EU. Although he appeared to reluctantly endorse Mrs May’s approach of a clean break with the EU — an exit from the single market and the customs union — he shifted the debate to a business friendly Brexit. He noted that the UK will “almost certainly need an implementation period . . . until new long-term arrangements are up and running”. The chancellor has concluded that a hard Brexit with a long transition period is the only politically acceptable outcome within the Conservative party for now. Mrs May’s overwhelming priority in Brexit has been control over immigration and British law. Mr Hammond has refreshingly introduced more pressing concerns to the debate, namely prosperity and jobs. As he put it, the British people did not vote last June to become poorer or less secure. His view should become more popular as the negotiations progress.