The UK parliament will be consumed for the next two years by intensive arguments about leaving the European Union after Theresa May’s government today set out a scaled-back legislative agenda.
Brexit-related bills accounted for much of the proposed legislation put forward in the Queen’s Speech, the formal opening of the new parliament, and those that weren’t related to the EU were strikingly unambitious.
Opposition parties immediately signalled their intention to exploit the Conservatives' weakness and push back on May's approach to Brexit. The Liberal Democrats said they will table an amendment to the speech in an attempt to stop Britain leaving the single market and customs union when it leaves the wider union, as May is planning.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the Conservatives were "a government with no clue, no direction and no mandate" and that his party would try to thwart their "extreme" plans for Brexit.
In her speech, the Queen said: “My government’s priority is to secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union.”
“My government will seek to maintain a deep and special partnership with European allies and to force new trading relationships across the globe."
To deliver its plans for Brexit, the government has proposed a “repeal bill” that will transfer all EU law onto the UK statute book in one swoop. Other bills on customs, trade, immigration, fisheries, agriculture, nuclear safeguards, and international sanctions have been proposed to push through May’s plans for a so-called hard Brexit.
The prime minister, who had hoped to set out bold reforms to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing British society, dropped her plans to bring back grammar schools, cut free school lunches for infants, and to impose a so-called dementia tax on recipients of social care.
Instead, the non-Brexit legislation put forward by May’s government is far more modest, including a crackdown on fraudulent whiplash claims and new powers to license commercial spacecraft. Most of the 27 pieces of legislation proposed by the government are unlikely to be controversial, and will therefore be easier for May to get through the Commons with at best a small majority.
Among the measures proposed in the speech were:
- Approval for the next phase of the high-speed rail network, extending it from Birmingham to Crewe
- Changes to regulations governing the use of smart meters in homes
- Greater protection for holiday makers against being ripped off by travel operators
- Improved protection for the victims of domestic violence
- Enhanced data protection for internet users
- A commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence
- A review of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy in the light of the attacks in London and Manchester
- Establishment of a commission to counter the spread of extremism in British communities
- A public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire
- A consultation on how to solve the crisis in social care
- A new “digital charter” to make the internet safer
- Changes to the way English schools are funded
- An increase in the national living wage to 60% of median earnings by 2020
- Publication of a green paper to examine ways to make the energy market fairer for consumers
There appeared to be no real surprises among the measures put forward. Instead, the speech was notable for the proposals May had intended to push through before the election but was forced to leave out because she wouldn't have the votes to get them through the Commons.
The Queen continued: “My ministers will strengthen the economy so that it supports the creation of jobs and generates the tax revenues needed to invest in the National Health Service, schools, and other public services.
“My government will continue to work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good school and that all schools are fairly funded. My minsters will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future, including through a major reform of technical education.
“My government will make further progress to tackle the gender pay gap and discrimination against people on the basis of their race, faith, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.”
Dramatically weakened by the catastrophic general election, the prime minister had not even secured the deal she hopes will keep her in power by the time of the Queen’s Speech.
Talks with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party's 10 MPs, whom May is counting on to prop her up in parliament, appeared to falter on Tuesday and are ongoing.
After the speech, a Number 10 aide declined to comment on the state of the talks except to say the Conservatives are hoping to get a deal.
Asked whether the government will have the numbers to pass the Queen's speech when MPs vote on it next week, the aide said: "We are confident this is a Queen's Speech that can command the confidence of the House."
Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, said: “Theresa May is in office, but clearly not in power – she is a lame duck Prime Minister leading a lame duck government.
“It took Theresa May just four days to ditch her first flagship manifesto policy, and it’s taken barely four weeks for her to ditch the rest."
The formal opening of parliament, where the Queen reads out the legislative programme set by ministers, was conducted with less pomp and ceremony than usual, with the monarch wearing a dress and hat instead of a robe and crown.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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