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Queen's Speech 2015: A series of hostages to fortune

The Conservatives cannily disarmed Labour's attack lines in the election. But they may end up counting the cost in the not too distant future.

Shortly after turning a majority of four into one of 96, Harold Wilson entertained a group of foreign dignitaries at Number 10. The conversation turned to golf. “How’s your handicap, Harold?” one diplomat asked. Quick as a flash, the Prime Minister replied: “Up from four to 96.”

David Cameron may feel as if he is in a somewhat similar position. Far from being master of all he surveys, his new, Conservative majority of 12 gives him considerably less freedom of manoeuvre than his old, Liberal-Conservative majority of 77.  As well as now having to secure concessions from his right flank, he’s committed to a manifesto with a variety of commitments that are, to put it mildly, somewhat tricky to implement.

The attempt to revive the success of Right to Buy – and with it, the Conservative advance into working-class communities that had previously been solidly Labour – is one such mess. You can have an interesting argument about the rights and wrongs of the original Right to Buy policy, but, crucially, it was the government’s property to sell off if it wanted to. Housing Associations aren’t part of the government, and it’s difficult to see how the law will be drafted without allowing private tenants to forcibly buy properties from their landlords. It will almost certainly be the subject of a legal challenge, even if makes its way through both Houses of Parliament. But before all that, Cameron has achieved the rare feat of uniting the Institute of Economic Affairs – who are, rightly, concerned about the implication for property rights – with Generation Rent – who are, equally rightly, troubled by the implication for Britain’s vanishing supply of social housing.

So the government had two options. Option one: they could quietly ditch it or kick it into the long grass, as they’ve done with the promise to repeal the Human Rights Act (there are three big legal problems: firstly, the Act is an essential part of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, secondly, the Act still has force in Scotland, thirdly, large parts of the Act have already entered common law making the whole exercise somewhat redundant). Option two: proceed full steam ahead, or at least give the appearance of doing so. They’ve gone for option two.

It’ll be a while before we can say for sure whether or not the government is actually going to pick a fight with the Opposition, its more libertarian backbenchers, the housing associations and the rest or is just waiting to let it die quietly in the Lords. It may be with one U-Turn behind them on the Human Rights Act and another on cutting the size of the Commons by 50, they simply don’t want to give the impression of being rudderless too early. (Creating 50 losers, many of them on your own side, is a recipe for chaos when you only have a majority of 12.)

But it’s a fairly wonkish issue so whenever the government gives up on it, there are unlikely to be many headlines about it unless the Conservative administration proves so utterly wretched and incompetent that the running theme of the next five years is “Tory U-turn” is plausible but not particularly likely.

More likely to be a problem are the Conservatives’ fiscal commitments. Many of these were attempts to defuse Labour attack lines – 30 free hours of childcare, £8bn for the NHS – that have now turned into unexploded bombs underneath the government. George Osborne now has the problem of finding money for all that, having made a virtue of removing almost all his freedom to manoeuvre.  Rises in income tax, national insurance and value added tax have all been ruled out and will be made illegal for the duration of the parliament.

This feels a lot like asking for trouble. What happens if say, Greece leaves the Euro, sparking around of contagion and another series of bail-outs? Or if the British recovery – itself a recovery marred by low productivity, relatively weak earnings growth and yet more personal debt – peters out between now and 2020? And added to that, how will the Conservatives do all that while meeting their target of closing the deficit by the end of the parliament?
That last may not be necessary. Cameron and Osborne were able to go into this election having fallen short of a deficit reduction programme they rubbished when it was brought forward by Alistair Darling, and still won a majority. It may be that they can be re-elected in 2020 even if they similarly fall short. But it may be that in not taking the opportunity to discard their more fanciful pledges during their post-re-election honeymoon,  the Conservatives find themselves in a great deal of trouble further down the line.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.