The Queen has now addressed the State Opening of Parliament on sixty-four occasions, and so she will know better than anyone that her speech was not a classic of the genre.
The ambitious legislative agenda that the Conservative Party outlined in Forward Together has, for the most part, evaporated alongside the Conservative Party’s majority. The headline policies from the Conservative manifesto – the proposed expansion of grammar schools, the possible reintroduction of hunting with hounds, the pledge to cap energy bills – are all dropped in favour of a programme which is unlikely to set many pulses racing.
Of course, the proposed legislative programme does contain items of real significance. The proposed Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill may, if it has real teeth, begin to address a problem which the government has been accused of neglecting. The proposed Tenants’ Fees Bill may reduce some of the financial pressures on private renters. The proposed Space Industry Bill may send Richard Branson into orbit. The current legislative programme may also be embellished with measures to increase infrastructure spending in Northern Ireland, if or when a deal is agreed between the Conservatives and the DUP. Few of these bills, however, are likely to live long in the memory.
The real heart of the Queen’s Speech – and, in all likelihood, the main demand on parliamentary time for the foreseeable future – is Brexit. Of the twenty-seven bills in the government’s current legislative programme, no fewer than eight address the process or consequences of leaving the European Union, and given the complexity of the legislation involved and the potential for numerous opposition amendments, MPs have already been warned to expect long sittings as the details are thrashed out.
The genuine complexity of Brexit has yet to be properly appreciated in the media nor, one suspects, in parts of the government. The coverage of the Queen’s Speech will likely obscure the news that more than seven hundred civil servants are likely to be seconded to Brexit departments to support the process. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported last month that 759 treaties would need to be renegotiated at the point of Britain’s departure. The process of withdrawing from the European Union will likely remain the main business of the Civil Service for years beyond March 2019 – even if formal withdrawal has actually been achieved by then – and it is far from clear that the British state is equipped to cope with the challenge.
However, Brexit is not merely a Whitehall problem. The main parties each face challenges over Brexit, or, more specifically, over the type of Brexit which is pursued. The divisions within the Conservative Party are longstanding, well-understood, and quite possibly irreconcilable. While the Conservatives fought the general election on a platform which promised to take an uncompromising approach to the negotiations, a significant minority (at least) of the parliamentary party would favour a rather softer approach, and the parliamentary arithmetic means that these MPs possess the power to cause the government significant difficulties. However, the Conservative backbenches and indeed the Cabinet contain a sufficient number of Brexit hardliners to cause difficulties of their own if there is any sign of weakness. And then there is the potential obstacle of the House of Lords…
However, the divisions within the Labour Party may offer the more intriguing spectacle. While the party leadership continues to equivocate on the type of Brexit Labour would pursue – some, including the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, have suggested that continued membership of the Single Market is impossible, while others, including Barry Gardiner, have suggested the option should be left on the table – the party’s manifesto commitment to ending freedom of movement implies a form of Brexit no less absolute than that promised by the Conservatives. While senior Labour backbenchers may insist that these represent ‘different nuances’ rather than serious divisions, these ‘nuances’ have to be put to the test under pressure. Yesterday’s statement in support of Single Market membership, signed by more than fifty Labour MPs and MEPs, certainly looked like the beginnings of a very polite rebellion against the leadership’s position.
The Queen’s Speech, to summarise, offers a legislative programme which is in some respects very slight, and in others the most significant and most complex legislative agenda parliament has ever seen. The dominant issue of the new parliament, Brexit, will likely produce interminably long and complex debates, and neither main party can credibly claim to be able to offer a coherent and defensible position on the subject. And there remains, of course, the possibility that there will be another general election in relatively short order. Perhaps we could all follow Richard Branson into space?