Queen and David Cameron: Under Pressure?

18 May 2016

The Queen is 90 years old and she's just delivered her 63rd speech opening a new session of Parliament.

She might be forgiven then for becoming slightly weary of reading out what her government plans to do. Especially when she's read so much of it out before. Twenty one Bills have been formally announced but several look familiar. Improving rural broadband? Preventing extremism and banning hate preachers? Improving opportunities for children in care? A million new homes? Seven day NHS and health tourism? It may be the first time that we hear the Queen talk about drones, driverless cars and spaceports but otherwise we have heard pretty much everything before. According to Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail, of the thirty broader measures described, twenty eight have been announced in some form before.

But if so why are we repeating this stately charade?

I think there are three main reasons. First, it is a political spectacle of the highest order - a ceremonial piece of pageantry that we still do well. This, after all, is meant to be the 'Mother of all Parliaments'. There was a time when announcing the planned bills for a parliamentary session was big news and the first time that the public and media had heard it. Not anymore but it remains a showpiece event and an opportunity to look the part. It is an exercise in sovereignty - the single biggest political issue of the moment. David Cameron will of course be keen to talk it up as meaningful pomp - evidence that we are still a sovereign nation in control of our destiny and confident of our place in the world. His opponents (at the moment these are are largely from inside his own party) won't be able to resist the temptation to describe it as a symbolic reminder of the past.

This matters - perhaps more than the content - and takes me to my second point which is timing. Earlier in this parliamentary term, the Queen wasn't expecting to give her speech opening the next one until the summer or possibly the autumn. It matters more at this particular time because like everything else, it is timed to have the greatest impact on the forthcoming EU Referendum. Suddenly the Government, in the words of Matthew Parris the ex Conservative MP and now Times columnist, 'has an urgent need to prove they’re busy, very much in charge and going somewhere'. There is a referendum to win and it requires everything that they can throw at it. We've had Mark Carney and Michael O'Leary and now it's the Queen's turn.

The third issue then relates to its actual content. The problem with Parris's assessment is that he and other commentators may not believe that the Government is any of these things. Having won a surprise majority only a year ago, the call from the Prime Minister will have been for radical policy proposals that show the public what a reforming, one nation party with a majority is able to achieve. But that doesn't appear to have happened today.

Many have observed that David Cameron's style as Prime Minister is more that of a chair than of a chief executive.

Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon describe his approach as 'letting ministers get on with their jobs where they had his trust' - a 'laissez-faire captain of the team'. In 2007, Francis Elliott and James Hanning described him as an 'essay crisis' leader - a label that has stuck in more recent assessments of his time as Prime Minister. In both views, he has sat back and allowed his cabinet ministers to do the detail, working well for some such as George Osborne and Michael Gove and perhaps less well for others such as Iain Duncan Smith, Andrew Lansley or Jeremy Hunt. Too often he has been too late to affect policy changes or to see a problem developing. Today's Higher Education and Research Bill comes on the back of a White Paper that according to a leaked briefing note last month, didn't exactly have the full confidence of No 10.

So does today's Queen's Speech matter?

Will it make a difference to the outcome of the EU Referendum? Is it a programme that can enable David Cameron to 'remain' as Prime Minister and then bind back a fiercely divided Conservative party back together over a forward looking agenda? Possibly not on this showing. But this is often when Cameron is most impressive - when the deadline is close by and his work is due in. If today's Queen's Speech was the equivalent of an unconvincing essay, then the 23rd June could be his final exam. He's got some serious work to do.

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About the Author

Professor Andy Westwood is Professor of Politics and Policy at the University of Winchester

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