The Queen doesn’t like to be kept waiting. The palace was not amused when two years ago, Theresa May had to postpone the state opening of parliament because negotiations with the DUP—following the loss of the Tory majority—were taking longer than planned. The delay led to a clash with Royal Ascot. Getting between Her Majesty and her horses is never a good idea.
But Theresa May looks set to make the same mistake again. With the two-year Parliamentary session nearly complete, the hope was that the government would present its next Queen’s Speech – setting out the government’s legislative agenda – in June. Except things haven’t gone quite to plan, and there is no date in the diary yet.
There is no legislation left
The government has no domestic legislation left. The only bills outstanding from the 2017 Queen’s Speech are Brexit ones that the government can’t pass.
This means that on return from the Easter recess, the government is faced with an unappetising choice. They can muddle on with no Brexit breakthrough and no government business to distract MPs with in the hope that something good happens in the remaining five or so months of the Brexit extension. Or they can take a chance and bring forward one last vote on May’s Brexit deal.
With the House of Commons speaker John Bercow clear that he won’t allow the government to bring a vote on the same piece of legislation twice, whips believe they can force one more vote by putting it into the reading of the government’s one remaining bill: the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill. However, if MPs then rejected it, the government would have no choice but to prorogue Parliament and present a Queen’s Speech.
A Queen’s Speech could bring down the government
Only a Queen’s Speech is fraught with difficulties for a government which lacks a majority. Firstly, it presents an opportunity to bring down the government. If MPs vote it down, the government falls and an election likely follows. Secondly, the Tories’ confidence and supply agreement with the DUP only lasts the current session, so a whole new negotiation would have to take place to win the DUP’s support for the next session. Given that relations between Theresa May and Arlene Foster’s party are at an all-time low, this won’t be easy. Finally, the government needs to have a legislative agenda to present. With no agreement on Brexit and little in the way of domestic agenda, there’s little to hide the government’s modesty.
The issue is a source of division in the Cabinet. There are those who believe such a vote could be the end for this shaky government so the best thing May can do is hang on – do nothing drastic on Brexit unless she is sure of the votes – and busy the government with various reviews and set-piece events. They say there is currently no majority – and warn that the DUP would not play ball. Then in November, when the Brexit extension ends, the party can reassess – perhaps once it has a new leader in place.
However, others believe that this is not a sustainable approach. Whether it’s the embarrassment of doing nothing for five months or MPs forcing the government’s hand, Cabinet ministers argue that the government must prepare a Queen’s Speech. The more optimistic of them even say that this could help Theresa May by giving her a chance to draft her political obituary. The Prime Minister has said she will depart No. 10 before the second half of the negotiations take place. She doesn’t just want to be remembered for Brexit, or for not delivering Brexit. A new Queen’s Speech could give May the chance to set out her legacy.
How would she do it? Choose a handful of issues she is personally passionate about – return to the burning injustices agenda she set out on the steps of Downing Street in her first days as Prime Minister. With no majority, these issues must be things that can get cross-party support – the motherhood and apple pie bill 2019. Government departments have been asked if there is anything they would like to do.
Any Queen’s Speech could be ‘hijacked’ by Tory faction and used to force government’s hand on Brexit. There has already been talk of a vote strike amongst the European Research Group in protest at the Prime Minister’s handling of Brexit. So, May needs to pick issues that these MPs would struggle to abstain on – issues such as veteran’s rights.
With the Cabinet leadership contenders calculating that their best chance at winning the top job comes from May sticking around long enough to take the flak for the Brexit deal, the Prime Minister has longer in the job yet.
Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid know that any leadership contest now would turn into a bidding war on Brexit that they couldn’t win. So both would rather spend their time buffing up their CVs. This week, we are seeing how they’ll pitch for the job. Hunt is in Japan, being the statesman on the world stage. Javid is talking about his life story, how growing up on the most dangerous street in Britain formed his views on violent crime.
A Queen’s Speech could be May’s chance to reset the dial. That said, she’d best not make it long – otherwise Tory MPs will start to get the wrong idea.
Katy Balls is deputy political editor at the Spectator magazine