Theresa May is, to quote George Osborne, “a dead woman walking” and today’s Queen’s Speech perfectly exemplified this fact. May had initially intended that the announcement of a date for the speech would be a way of gaining leverage on the DUP but this did not happen and as a result there is not yet a formal arrangement in place to prop up a Tory minority government. Because of this political uncertainty the speech was devoid of serious proposals other than vague statements about Brexit that could be interpreted in different ways depending on one’s views of the EU, and a notable absence of proposals that were in the Conservative manifesto.
On two separate occasions the Queen referred to “working with the devolved administrations” and this is noteworthy because it has been falsely claimed by the Tories that they are already doing that. In Northern Ireland the power-sharing arrangement at Stormont has collapsed, in Wales Carwyn Jones has been absent from many discussions about Brexit and its implications, and Nicola Sturgeon has been outspoken in criticising the Tories’ approach. These references were supposed to fool people into thinking that Theresa May is thinking about the entire country rather than her true focus which is keeping her own job in the face of an increasingly hostile bunch of Conservative backbenchers.
The main legislative focus of the speech was on Brexit with the Queen speaking about how much of the next year will be dedicated to enacting legislation to replace laws previously under the competency of the EU. However, the speech also emphasised the government’s desire to get trade agreements with countries around the world, which reiterates the desire of many Tories to improve links with Commonwealth countries.
In terms of the economy, the Queen’s Speech said that economic policy will focus on creating jobs so that the Exchequer receives higher tax revenues. This is incredibly vague because it gives the Chancellor complete freedom to do whatever he wants. Previously, the Conservative obsession with austerity meant that in many cases jobs and wages were suffered with the stated goal being to reduce public expenditure. If the new main macroeconomic goal of the country is to create jobs, Philip Hammond could come out as a card-carrying Keynesian and claim to be within his remit.
I would say, however, that this last point is simply wishful thinking on my part. The speech also emphasised the Tory desire to keep taxes low and “attract investment in infrastructure and emergent technology”. If the Tories were planning a massive investment programme they would have had to raise taxes on some people and the focus on ‘attracting’ investment implies that it would come from the private sector. Interestingly, the speech specifically said that the government will introduce legislation on high speed rail which could result in backbench Tories voting against the government.
The Tories also used the speech to address the housing crisis. They intend to ban tenant fees, promote transparency in the industry and encourage more homes to be built. This is in no way satisfactory. We need millions of homes built in this country and a radical reform of how the private rented sector operates. Scrapping tenant fees is a decent idea, but a much more pressing issues are the lack of social housing and the ridiculously high levels of rent in the private market, especially in big cities.
Some will argue that the reason the Tories don’t want to do anything about the real housing problems of the country is that it will result in the government intervening to much in the private sector. But this leads me on to the Tories’ proposed energy policy. The government wants to freeze energy prices and end ‘unfair’ commercial practices so that consumers are not ripped off. I’m fine with both of these policies, and would encourage Theresa May to introduce exclusively left-wing policies, but it reveals the Tories to be ideologically bankrupt. If the housing market cannot be interfered with because doing so is harmful, surely the same logic applies to the energy market. It’s almost like the Tories are making it up as they go along.
Another noteworthy part of the speech was the intention of the government to introduce a digital charter so extremism can be tackled online. This is a profoundly worrying development. Nobody argues that radicalisation through the internet is not a phenomenon that needs to be addressed, but doing so by severely curtailing the rights and freedoms of every British citizen and resident should be opposed. No Cabinet minister should be able to have such sweeping powers and the surveillance state should not be expanded. There are ways to defeat extremism through community policing, education, and starving the funding of countries were extremism festers. Undermining the civil liberties of everyone in our society is profoundly the wrong approach.
Much of the rest of the speech was a reaction to recent events. The Queen spoke about how the Tories intend to introduce a public advocate for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and other tragedies in future. Further, following the terror attacks in Manchester and London, the speech specified the government’s intention to review custodial sentences for those convicted of terrorist offences. Finally, in an unsubtle rejection of new US policy, the speech said that the government was committed to implemented the Paris Agreement.
What was conspicuously missing from the speech were explicit mentions of grammar schools and fox hunting. One could argue that having the Queen say that all children should be able to have a place at a ‘good’ school, whatever that means, could give the government some wiggle room, but we will have to wait and see what the Tories do. The omission of a vote on fox hunting is down to the political reality created by the last election. All non-government parties in the House of Commons oppose fox hunting and some DUP and Tory MPs hare on the record as saying that they oppose reintroducing the practice.
To conclude, the Queen’s Speech was exactly what it was expected to be: completely devoid of details and open to so many interpretations that Conservative MPs couldn’t possibly vote against it in its totality. There is a lack of clarity on Brexit, the economy, housing, and so many other issues. The opposition to this Queen’s Speech in the Commons will be intense and the alternative policies put forward by the Labour Party must be shared widely so that Jeremy Corbyn is made to look like Prime Minister in waiting. Labour have a glorious opportunity to push the Tories aside and thankfully the splits that have handicapped the party in the last few years appear to have been swept under the carpet, at least for the time being.