Between the pomp, the ceremony and the occasional moment of comic farce (google ‘Michael Gove + Prince Philip + Wig + Bag’) it’s sometimes possible to forget that the Queen’s Speech is more than just an extraordinary piece of theatre. Assembled in the House of Lords are the highest representatives of every arm of the British establishment – the Monarch, of course, as well as MPs and Peers – but also the Judiciary and the Bishops and senior Civil Servants. All squeezed in along the red benches to have the political landscape of the coming year mapped out for them.
For the victors, it is a moment of triumph – particularly in the case of the Conservative Party, who last wrote a Queen’s Speech on their own nearly twenty years ago. For the defeated, it is the moment when their redundancy and irrelevance to the business of governing is at its most crystal clear.
Of course, the fact that David Cameron was free to essentially dump the Conservative manifesto in the Queen’s lap and say ‘Your Majesty, would you just read this out?’ was as much a surprise to him as to everyone else. He expected to still be Prime Minister but he also expected to have to negotiate his way back into office. Instead of being confronted with the problem of not quite winning, Cameron finds himself dealing with the fallout of winning – but only just.
First to be sacrificed at the altar of a tiny majority was the British Bill of Rights. For years this has been official Conservative Party policy – the Human Rights Act would be scrapped, European legal supremacy abolished and a new British Act (and British Court) raised in its place. It has been Tory policy at three General Elections but, strangely, no-one really took the time to work out how it might be done. What’s more, senior lawyers on the Tory backbenches are furiously opposed to the scheme – which they regard as being both Quixotic and dangerous; even a small rebellion is a massive headache when you only have a majority of twelve. The Lib Dems saved Cameron from this mess by straight-out vetoing the whole idea in 2010, giving him an excellent excuse for quietly shelving it. That excuse is gone now, and so the Conservative Party set out to implement their longstanding ambition – Cameron confidante Michael Gove and rising star Dominic Raab were tasked with drawing up the Bill, the Whips set to work shoring up support and all looked good to go. The Daily Mail even ran a front-page story praising the Government for standing up to ‘leftie luvvies’ and pressing ahead with the plan. But it wasn’t to be. There was no British Bill of Rights announced in the Queen’s Speech – instead a mere consultation was announced.
Of course, the issues with this particular policy were legion. Raab and Gove struggled to get even close to something workable and it transpires that because of our eccentric devolutionary settlement any Bill of Rights would end up being ‘English’ rather than ‘British’. But what this fiasco illustrates best is the power that groups of Tory backbenchers – even relatively small groups – have to effectively veto legislation in this Parliament. The most powerful backbench MPs aren’t the new SNP intake or Labour’s Committee Chairs – it is Tory MPs with a bone to pick and mates in the tea-room.
For now, everyone is playing nicely enough. The elections to the Conservative Party’s powerful 1922 Committee were good natured and uncontested, Cameron’s reshuffle has reassured older and once-rebellious MPs that there is a route back to office for them and the Prime Minister has used patronage to win support across the party. But things won’t stay that way forever. The potential for rebellions on a range of issues – from when to hold the European Referendum to Theresa May’s reinvigorated ‘snooper’s charter’ – is huge. And that’s before legislation even makes it to the Lords – where the Tories don’t have a majority and the Lib Dems are threatening to break the Salisbury Convention, which usually dictates that manifesto pledges are not struck down in the unelected chamber.
Still, the Conservative Party is in power. Whatever the dangers for Cameron and his fragile Government these coming months, they are nothing when compared to the boredoms and frustrations of another half-decade in opposition. That is Labour’s fate.
At least, for now, they can distract themselves with the fun of electing a new Leader and Deputy Leader. It’s early days but already the field for the top job has been reduced to three viable candidates – Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. Mary Creagh’s name remains in play but she looks unlikely to gain sufficient nominations to make it onto the ballot. The essential question for Labour to ask itself is this – did they lose because Ed Miliband was unattractive, because their policies were unattractive, or both? How they answer that will determine which candidate they choose.
Whoever wins in the end faces an unenviable challenge. Not only will they will have to steer the party through the tedium and humiliations of opposition for five long years but if boundary changes are pushed through they could be facing a much larger Tory majority in 2020. Together with the proposed legislation that could see union funding slashed by millions, the outlook for the new leader is bleak.
If the last Parliament has taught us anything it is that political prediction is a game for the very brave and the very stupid. But it is clear that Labour has a very, very long way to go before it can expect a return to power. In the meantime, the Conservative Party will be engaged in a race against itself. How much legislation and reform can they push through before turning on themselves?