The growth-shaped hole in the Queen's Speech

There was little in the speech to revive growth and employment this side of the election. But can Labour take advantage?

The Queen's Speech was proof that David Cameron has taken Lynton Crosby's advice to scrape "the barnacles off the boat" and focus on what he regards as voters' core concerns: the economy, immigration, welfare reform and education. Out went the international aid bill, the "snoopers' charter", minimum alcohol pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes. In came bills limiting immigrants' access to public services and benefits, making it easier to deport foreign criminals and giving the government new powers to tackle anti-social behaviour. In another concession to the right, the speech made no reference to the equal marriage bill (which was introduced in the last session and is being carried over), although the energy bill, which is similarly being carried over, was mentioned. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg will point to bills introducing a £72,000 cap on social care costs, a single-tier pension scheme and High Speed Two as proof that the coalition is not short on ambition. But the social care and pensions measures aren't due to take effect until 2016 (so after the next general election), while the high speed rail project won't be completed until 2033. In the short-term, both Cameron and Clegg's fortunes will hinge on the performance of the economy, and here the speech was decidedly lacking. 

"My Government’s legislative programme will continue to focus on building a stronger economy," it read (almost as if the double-dip recession, the loss of Britain's AAA credit rating and the £245bn increase in forecast borrowing never happened), promising "the creation of more jobs and opportunities". But aside from the new £2,000 Employment Allowance for small businessses, there was little with the potential to stimulate growth and job creation. It is here that Labour will concentrate its attack in this afternoon's debate. Last week, Ed Miliband unveiled an alternative Queen's Speech, which included the creation of a British Investment Bank, a temporary VAT cut, a one year national insurance holiday for small firms and a jobs guarantee for every adult out of work for more than two years and every young person out of work for more than a year. But Labour's reluctance to make the case for a short-term increase in borrowing (highlighted by Peter Hain today) has left it struggling to take advantage of the coalition's inertia. After a mixed set of local election results and the first hints of a Tory recovery since the "omnishambles" Budget, Miliband needs a strong performance today to earn him the political breathing space he requires. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.