Queen’s speeches are rarely a reliable guide to the government’s actions over the next year. The monarch’s declaration that “other measures will be laid before you” frequently proves an understatement as MPs are invited to vote on grand military and economic interventions.
But never in her 64 years on the throne, has Elizabeth II delivered an address so provisional in character. If the UK votes to leave the EU in five weeks’ time, David Cameron will almost certainly resign and his successor (most likely Boris Johson) will be consumed by the task of negotiating Britain’s exit. For these reasons, some counselled the Prime Minister to delay the occasion until after 23 June. But determined to show that the business of government is continuing, and desiring a ready-made post-vote agenda, he pushed ahead.
Cameron’s seventh Queen’s Speech was defined by the social reforms that he wants to be his legacy: a prisons and courts bill to advance rehabilitation, a children and social work bill to improve adoption rates, a higher education bill to increase access for disadvantaged groups, and a national citizen service bill. Conservative strategists emphasise that this is not a calculated bid to colonise “the centre ground” but a reflection of the Prime Minister’s sincerest passions. They speak of him returning to a project of social renewal that was interrupted by the financial crisis and its aftermath.
But even if Cameron negotiates the obstacle of the EU referendum (as most polls suggest he will), he will struggle to secure the legacy he craves. A government majority of 12 and continuing austerity may thwart the reforms at birth. Those that are implemented may only bear fruit years after they are implemented – by which time the PM will no longer be around to claim credit. Having pre-resigned during the last general election campaign, power is draining from him at an accelerated rate.
At present, Cameron’s legacy is markedly inchoate. He has sharply reduced the size and scope of the state but is insufficiently ideological to boast of having done so. His “One Nation” rhetoric has too rarely been accompanied by One Nation policies. With the honourable exception of equal marriage, he has no signature social reform to his name.
The Prime Minister’s immediate task is not to secure the legacy he wants but to avoid the one he doesn’t: Brexit. The sovereignty bill that was once promised by No.10 to assert the supremacy of parliament over Brussels was absent. But the monarch pledged that “ministers will uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons”. Yet on 23 June, it is the people who will be sovereign and it is in their hands that Cameron’s fate rests.