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21 June 2017

Will the Queen’s Speech take us back to 1978?

The government's programme has echoes of Jim Callaghan's last Queen's Speech. 

By Stephen Bush

For the first time in 38 years, the government goes into its Queen’s Speech without knowing for sure that it has the votes to pass it.

Jim Callaghan’s last Queen’s Speech has some strange historical echoes, including the commitment to introducing devolved government in Northern Ireland and to remain a constructive member of what was then the European Economic Community.

What both that 1978 programme and this one – at least as far as the pre-briefed extracts – have in common is their thinness. It may be that the government’s Domestic Violence Bill, its plans to ban letting fees, or its new arms-length body to oversee financial guidance ends up being as big and a lasting a contribution as the introduction of the Public Lending Right which means authors receive money when their work is taken out at libraries. (I think it’s unlikely, to put it mildly, that measures to cut down on claims for whiplash will live long in the memory or in public affection.)

But on all of those, you can already see the difficulties that will arise. Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the definition of a confidence vote has been sharply narrowed. The Queen’s Speech and the Budget, and that’s it. May, or whichever Conservative ends up replacing her in the fullness of time, won’t be able to turn tricky votes into “back me or sack me” ones. Their leverage over the Democratic Unionist Party – an early election that puts Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 – becomes significantly smaller once today’s Speech passes on the 28 and 29 June. (Although the government has made a bad fist of its negotiations with the DUP, no-one seriously expects that the government will be unable to pass its Queen Speech at the end of this month.)

The difficulty will be in what happens to the legislative agenda after that. The progressive parties will all want to bring amendments to the Domestic Violence Bill to make it more far-reaching and more transformative – and each of those will have a good chance of peeling away moderate Tory votes. But the more radical the bill the more votes it loses at the other end, and the Opposition will be looking to defeat the government wherever it can.

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Moves to ban letting fees too, are going to be tricky to pass, because, again, it creates problems on the Tory right and Labour has no incentive to bail out the government on this or any issue. A thin set of proposals will likely turn out to be thinner still when – if – they make it to the statute book.

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