Queen’s Speech: Cameron Continues To Seek a Legacy Beyond Austerity
Forget the pageantry. Forget the coach and horses, the Lord Chancellor’s backwards step and the sword of state. I am sure they make most of this stuff up anyway. Forget also that more recent constitutional innovation, the Beast of Bolsover’s “witty” intervention as Black Rod commands the Commons to attend Her Majesty in the house of peers. The annual State Opening of Parliament, where the government sets out its legislative priorities, is all about the slogan. And as a slogan this year's is rather pathetic: The Life Chances Agenda.
David Cameron’s seventh Queen’s Speech was dominated by the train he set in motion with his autumn party conference speech. It is a journey to the centre-ground and made with an eye on disillusioned left-wing voters, who are far from enamoured with the election and performance of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
At its centre is a prisons and courts rehabilitation bill, a higher education bill to improve access for disadvantaged groups and a national service bill to encourage community volunteering.
Of the two biggest bills, that Michael Gove, a key Brexiteer, is in charge of prison reform will be significant to Cameron’s chances of re-uniting his party and securing a few more years in office should Remain win in June. More importantly, the shake-up has been billed as “the biggest reform since Victorian times”. Six new “reform prisons”, of which HMS Wandsworth will be the first, will receive more powers over areas of management: governors will have greater financial and legal powers over budgets, national contracts, operational control on education, family visits and partnerships to provide prison work and rehabilitation service. These “reform prisons” will become independent legal entities with the power to enter into contracts, generate and retain income, and establish their own boards with external expertise.
Meanwhile the Social Care Work Bill is designed to make adoption easier and to ensure that those who have been in care are able to continue receiving help after they leave. It will set up a watchdog to oversee social care and adoption centres. Those who have been in care will get more help, including an assigned mentor to find jobs and housing. This can only be A Good Thing, as they say in 1066 And All That.
David Cameron is trying to reinvent himself as his former self: the optimist who stood for the Tory leadership in 2005
There were also signs of the government’s weaknesses as well: much of the supposed sovereignty bill has been shelved, forced academisation of state-maintained schools was watered down, plans for a British Bill of Rights were scrapped. So often has a British Bill of Rights been touted and never seen that it has become as phantasmic as Dickens’s Mrs Harris. It only exists in the most deluded of minds. The prime minister may be trying to show that he remains in charge and that he has an agenda for change, but equally he has to work within the parameters of a slender majority and a fractious party. The fact is that before the referendum Cameron cannot afford controversy and afterwards he needs to pour some greatly-needed balm over bitter wounds if he is to survive.
But there is a greater question.
How much of this is just talk? Does life on the ground - in Manchester, Liverpool, parts of London and elsewhere - reflect the prime minister’s grand rhetoric? It was heralded as a “One Nation” agenda from a “One Nation government”. Cynicism is very easy. It is very satisfying to say that all this is just opportunistic political manoeuvring. There is however a reality - even if we take the agenda at face value - which is that government departments and people are having to manage with continued cuts.
Twenty eight of the thirty measures have been announced before, which leaves just two new measures - remarkable for a new government elected just over a year before. Mrs Windsor’s speech is not always an accurate representation of a government intentions. Events force action and change the agenda. Yet even on this basis the Conservative Government’s second parliamentary agenda is sketchy and provisional at best. After five gruelling years of cuts and compromises with the Lib Dems, Cameron found himself simultaneously unbound and reshackled by the promise which broke the previous chains: the EU referendum.
For a start there is no certainty that Cameron will remain in office. Should Leave unexpectedly win the referendum on June 23 David Cameron will be out of office, as will George Osborne. Even if Remain wins Cameron will have to invest some time and energy in reuniting his party, which has been wrought by division not just over the question of Brexit but (somewhat unfairly and hypocritically) at the tactics of the pro-European camp. It is as insulting to voters to compare the EU to the Third Reich as it is to pretend that ISIS are secret Brexiteers.
The prime minister remains desperate to secure a legacy beyond “austerity” economics. After evading definition for so long, he now wants to be defined as a social reformer. David Cameron is trying to reinvent himself as his former self: the optimist who stood for the Tory leadership in 2005. However it may be that he has left it too late, that the contradictions of his government's approach stop him and the compromises he has made to remain in office mean it is a desperately futile throw of the dice.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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