Queen's Speech 2013 analysis: Time running out for real reforms

Just time for some more legislating before the electoral chaos to come
Just time for some more legislating before the electoral chaos to come
Alex Stevenson By

A weird, thoroughly unpleasant image keeps popping up in my brain when I think about this year's Queen's Speech. It's of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, squashed together in a slowly shrinking red telephone booth, but trying their hardest to look attractive to a gaggle of onlooking backbenchers and voters.

The troubled daydreams of a poor lobby journalist should, perhaps, be referred to psychiatric help. But colleagues have helped me interpret them. A ticking clock and the pressing need to implement rather than legislate makes this Queen's Speech a tricky proposition for the coalition's leaders. But with the limited wriggle room available to them, the coalition's leaders are trying their damndest to posture every way they can to please just about everyone.

Think back 12 months. The coalition's first midterm Queen's Speech was dominated by the doomed Lords reform bill, setting up months of misery, sending government unity into freefall and laying the groundwork for the acrimony of boundary changes. It should have been a year establishing the foundations of a stable government. It turned out to be a year paving the way for the institutionalised collapse of the coalition. At the back of Cameron and Clegg's minds as they prepared this year's speech, they will have known they cannot get away with much.

At the front of their minds will be last year's local election results. So the immigration bill is placed at the front and centre of Downing Street's media operation, trumpeted to Ukip voters up and down the country as the answer to their grievances. Tory backbench right-wingers are, as expected, handed a raft of measures on law and order which will delight them. There is a danger some may be underwhelmed, though, as most of the proposals are being bunched into two bills, the antisocial behaviour, crime and policing bill and the offender rehabilitation bill. The squabble between Chris Grayling and Ken Clarke over the latter is, in this legislation, watering down what could have been a potentially radical liberal reform.

Ministers will hope the unexpected inclusion of the defence reform bill, which tries to make the process of spending vast amounts of cash on guns less complex, could offset this. The economy, that great fundamental coalition unifier, will also prove useful in getting the entirety of the Tory party onside. It doesn't matter that the tone of the coalition's rhetoric today on its growth agenda is more than a little misleading.

"This Queen's Speech is all about backing people who work hard and want to get on in life," Cameron and Clegg declare today. That sounds like this is a Queen's Speech for the man on the street, the struggling 'striver' battered by the miserable state of the economy. It is not. The bills put forward today help businesses, not individuals, in exactly the way Conservative MPs like. From deregulation to help with national insurance to intellectual property to gambling, it is companies that will benefit. The draft consumer rights bill would make a more convincing riposte were it not being forced on the government by an EU directive.

Immigration, law and order, the economy: these are the bits of the speech which will definitely make the news tonight. If Sir Alex Ferguson's exit from Manchester United does not completely swamp the evening bulletins, it will certainly preclude coverage of the really important parts of the state opening. And this is a shame. Bills shaking up the pensions and care systems, critical to the way our country operates, will not get the attention they will merit in the history books because we know much about their contents, and because they are unlikely to lead to really big political fights. Instead the really controversial legislation, on HS2 and the carried-over energy and water bills, will be forming a large part of our daily fodder in the months to come.

Implementation is king at this stage of the parliamentary cycle. That is especially so in a coalition which has already legislated on its biggest reforms. There is nothing from the Department of Health, for example; not even public health bills on plain packaging for cigarettes, or alcohol minimum pricing, which were set to have been included before ministers suffered a severe attack of cold feet. The Department for Education also doesn't get a bill. But that does not mean Michael Gove plans on twiddling his thumbs over the next 12 months. Far from it.

The next year will see upheavals to the lives of Britain's children and young people whose significance extends far beyond most of the bills in this speech. A new national curriculum will be devised. The exam system faces transformation as Gove ends the grade inflation debate with an emphatic: "The standards of our examinations has fallen." Teachers' pay is about to be shaken up, too. You don't have to wade through the small print to realise quite how sweeping all this is. And Gove, carrying out a ruthless ideological revolution, will do whatever it takes to beat the system.

The civil service gobbledegook accompanying the Queen's Speech is permeated by something feeling very much like a threat of more to come. "Subject to the outcome of further consultation on the secondary legislation required to bring the other proposed changes into force," one especially sinister paragraph notes, "we will also bring forward further orders and regulations as necessary to implement those changes."

Even in busy years, the foreign policy elements of the speech are usually weighty. This year, with fewer bills than usual, they take up greater significance. There are moves of real significance here: Gibraltar is to get more assistance and international cybercrime is going to be pursued more vigorously. Then there is a "minor technical bill" placating the EU by authorising, ridiculously, programmes including an attempt to ensure access to the historical archives of the European institutions.

Tory backbenchers hoping for a draft bill setting up an EU referendum will gnash their teeth when they realise this is the full extent of the government's legislative plans on Europe. They will have to wait until next year.

Cameron will hope the immigration bill song and dance will provide sufficient distraction from this awkward truth. It won't work. However much the prime minister contorts, the wiggle room left to him is slowly shrinking as the coalition approaches its endgame.

Already limited in scope and ambition, this government is planning on grinding to a halt at some time in the next 12 to 24 months. Sooner rather than later, the urge to break free of the shackles and start campaigning hard for 2015 will become irresistible.

Today's effort is the final push to cooperate with the Liberal Democrats. It is overshadowed by the looming electoral storm to come. But as the twilight gloom of this government begins to gather, there is still time for a little legislating to be done.


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