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The Queen’s Speech

Wednesday 12 May 2021

The State Opening of parliament lacked pomp and – more importantly – purpose. A former Number 10 speechwriter judges the government’s legislative plan to be both vague and grubby


My government’s priority is to deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before. To achieve this, my government will level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom, supporting jobs, businesses and economic growth and addressing the impact of the pandemic on public services.

The royal family turned up to Her Majesty’s 67th State Opening looking like a wedding party that had got lost and wandered by mistake into a sparsely populated regional theatre. I half expected her to start with “dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God…” Instead, they were gathered only in the sight of Boris Johnson, which is, at his own estimation, much the same thing. Due to Covid restrictions, the Lord Chancellor placed the speech on a table, rather than hand it directly to the Queen, as usual.

The conundrum of the Queen’s Speech is always to try to make it cohere. Most Queen’s Speeches are formed of legislative odds and ends. It is rare that a government has a defining purpose which can be written through the speech. This is a government that has been preoccupied by Brexit and the pandemic. It has not done a lot of policy development – and it shows. 

Here though, in the opening frame, is the one candidate for an organising principle, if you wanted one. Government ministers talk a lot about “levelling up”, though it is not obvious that many of them know what they mean by the slogan. Most of them will be none the wiser after this speech, as the opportunity to build on the slogan is passed up. 

It does seem, from the contents of this Queen’s Speech, that this is a government full of sound and fury but not one that will signify much. What follows is not an argument but a slightly random list. Some vague suggestions about preventative health care but nothing serious on the urgent question of social care beyond yet another pretence that, one day, we will deal with this – promise. 

There is, however, the usual sneaky pleasure to be taken in hearing the sovereign using government jargon that no sentient person would ever use. I cannot imagine that, in her private moments, Her Majesty calls in her son and says “Hey Charles, we really need to level up the distribution of the Civil List”.

My ministers will oversee the fastest ever increase in public funding for research and development and pass legislation to establish an advanced research age… My government will strengthen the economic ties across the union, investing in and improving national infrastructure. Proposals will be taken forward to transform connectivity by rail and bus and to extend 5G mobile coverage and gigabit capable broadband. Legislation will support a lifetime skills guarantee to enable flexible access to high quality education and training throughout people’s lives… Laws will simplify procurement in the public sector. Eight new freeports will create hubs for trade and help regenerate communities.

David Cameron and George Osborne took inspiration from the second and third terms of Tony Blair when public service reform was the order of the day. The Johnson government is going back to first term Blair. This wish-list calls to mind the New Deal for Communities and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit. The trouble with all this infrastructure spending, apart from servicing the debt incurred, is that it tends to make less difference to people’s lives than you think. 

There is a hint of residual Cummings in the funding for research and development (which was a Gordon Brown obsession too) but the rest of this levelling-up section will hardly matter to anyone. Simplifying procurement in the public sector is no doubt a laudable thing to do (whoever wants complexity in procurement) but it won’t win many Hartlepools. 

The one exception, on which more should have been said, is the plan for a lifetime guarantee for education and training. A better constructed speech would have put that first and made it lead the section. Most of the other items are barely footnotes.

My government will ensure that the public finances are returned to a sustainable path once the economic recovery is secure.

I hope the Queen is called before a select committee to answer for this one. “But you said there would be a sustainable path…” Of all the claims in the speech this is the one with the potential to open a crack in the government. There is a serious gulf between the prime minister and the chancellor on spending. It has hardly been commented on but Rishi Sunak is a chancellor with an economic policy he does not believe in. He is skirting dishonesty when he pretends to agree with all the spending that is planned.

This bland statement portends trouble. There is no viable way the government can return the public finances to anything like a sustainable path. The prime minister doesn’t even care about trying. The chancellor does and one day he may have to actually say what he thinks. For the moment, he has the Queen talking nonsense on his behalf.

My government will help more people to own their own home whilst enhancing the rights of those who rent. Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward, along with measures to end the practice of ground rents for new leasehold properties. My ministers will establish in law a new Building Safety Regulator to ensure that the tragedies of the past are never repeated.

This is Her Majesty the Queen’s 67th State Opening of parliament and that might be the 68th time she has read out those words, or something to that effect, about liberalising the planning system. Planning reform is the Crossrail of national politics. It is announced every other week but never quite arrives. Planning reform is something that everyone is in favour of until there is a plan to build something near where you live. Expect trouble from Tory MPs if this one ever sees the light of day.

My government will invest in new green industries to create jobs, while protecting the environment. The United Kingdom is committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and will continue to lead the way internationally by hosting the COP26 Summit in Glasgow. Legislation will set binding environmental targets. Legislation will also be brought forward to ensure the United Kingdom has, and promotes, the highest standards of animal welfare.

This has been a speech with two sources: cash and Carrie. The vast spending that is needed to finance all these promises has not quite been spelt out but it has been implied throughout. This is an expensive Queen’s Speech. Then we get this bit. It is surely not being too uncharitable to say that the prime minister has never been a notable champion of the environment and animal welfare questions. He is now but, again, there are difficulties hidden in these bland promises. The route to net zero greenhouse emissions is a bumpy one and when the prime minister starts spending political capital on forcing businesses to comply he may find his party unforgiving of the attempt.

My government will strengthen and renew democracy and the constitution. Legislation will be introduced to ensure the integrity of elections, protect freedom of speech and restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts. My ministers will promote the strength and integrity of the union. Measures will be brought forward to strengthen devolved government in Northern Ireland and address the legacy of the past.

Peter Lilley, the Conservative politician, once said that identity cards were a solution in search of a problem. The demand that first time voters must take photographic ID to the polling booth is almost an example of that, though perhaps the problem it solves is that young people have a tendency to vote Labour. There is no serious problem with electoral integrity in Britain and this is a grubby Bill.

My government will introduce measures to increase the safety and security of its citizens. Legislation will increase sentences for the most serious and violent offenders and ensure the timely administration of justice. Proposals will be brought forward to address violence, including against women and girls, and to support victims. Measures will be brought forward to establish a fairer immigration system that strengthens the United Kingdom’s borders and deters criminals who facilitate dangerous and illegal journeys.

The speech ends with the Brexit Bills. They may not seem like that because they do not mention the European Union, but then Brexit was not principally about the European Union. It was about control – and control, for the most part, of immigration. 

It has to be said that Brexit has worked too. Immigration has been a big issue in British politics for a decade and now it has dropped down the list of public priorities. This is not good news for a government which needs to have a periodic row over immigration, hence here are the plans. And, after a brief excursion into counter-insurgency and terrorism and some vapid words about overseas aid, the Queen closed the speech with the usual formalities and set off back in the Bentley to Buckingham Palace to release Marcus Jones, MP for Nuneaton, who had been held hostage pending the safe return of the sovereign.

The circumstances gave the proceedings the slight air of unreality. The principal purpose of the State Opening is its ceremony, rather than the perfunctory reading of the titles of some hastily-drafted Bills. In the absence of flunkies to line the Sovereign’s staircase or a Guard of Honour outside the Palace of Westminster, it didn’t even serve the purpose of pomp. How can you open parliament with only two Yeomen and Gentlemen at Arms present? Actually, it showed you can and, perish the thought, maybe two Yeomen and Gentlemen at Arms is still two too many. 

As the royal party dispersed it was hard to avoid the thought that this was a thin speech, the main point of which was to disburse cash in the hope that the memory of the generosity will still be strong for a general election in the summer of 2023.