In a past political universe, the Conservatives spoke of winning Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s seat of Bolsover. But as Black Rod summoned MPs to the Lords for the Queen’s Speech, there the Beast was heckling away as usual: “Get yer skates on, the first race is at half post two,” he remarked of Ascot.
This was not the occasion that Theresa May wanted. When the Prime Minister called an early general election on that now-distant April day, she was hopeful of winning the Conservatives’ first landslide majority since 1987. She ended up without one at all.
The consequence is a programme shorn of the most divisive measures from the Conservative manifesto: the “dementia tax”, grammar schools, the abolition of universal free school meals and the means-testing of Winter Fuel Payments. Not since 1978 has a minority government presented a Queen’s Speech. Unsurprisingly, only those policies with a chance of achieving consensus endure: a ban on letting agent fees, new measures to tackle domestic violence, a Space Industry Bill and further HS2 legislation.
The planet-sized exception to this is Brexit. In her foreword to the speech, May declared that “over 80 per cent of the electorate” backed EU withdrawal at the election (by voting for Labour and the Conservatives). But that does not amount to a mandate for her Brexit. The speech, however, showed little acknowledgment of this reality.
There was a tonal change: talk of “no deal” being better than a “bad deal” was replaced by a commitment to secure the “best possible deal”. The speech vowed to work “with parliament, the devolved administrations, business and others to build the widest possible consensus”.
But the fundamentals are unchanged: the government remains committed to leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union and legislation (the Repeal Bill, the Trade Bill) will be introduced to this end. Yet without a majority, May can no longer claim a mandate for this stance. It is MPs, not ministers, who will determine the outcome. The nascent majority for a “soft Brexit” can now be activated. The House of Lords, too, freed from the need to obey the Salisbury Convention, will not hesitate to obstruct May.
The Prime Minister called the election, despite the comfortable passage of Article 50, with the insistence that she needed a bigger mandate. Having been denied one by the voters, parliament will now seek to take back control.