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Queen Speech Tuesday, 24 November, 1998, 19:24 GMT
Hague jibes hit their mark
William Hague, on form in debate
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

For the first time in her life, the Queen was subjected to rumblings of dissent when she opened the new session of parliament.

As she made her umpteenth speech on the state opening, the traditional silence was suddenly shattered as eager New Labour MPs grumbled their support for the government's plan to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers.

The Queen's Speech
Disgruntled Lords were overcome with disgust and - despite their normally reserved and respectful natures - retalliated with cries of "shame" at the Labour louts who had broken with tradition.

For a tenth of a second it looked like the House of Lords was going to turn into a football terrace.

Political wording

But the mumblings soon subsided, leaving the Queen to get on with the business of reading out what the prime minister had told her he is going to do this year.

Even that came under attack, with Tory Chairman Michael Ancram claiming he could detect Tony Blair's "modernising" hand at work in the wording of the speech.

He was backed by other Tory MPs who accused the government of politicising the speech and forcing the Queen to mouth Labour propaganda.

Even the mystifying pomp and ceremony that surrounds this great occasion had been watered down.

There were a couple less Bluemantle Pursuivants or Maltravers Heralds - or something like that - than usual. But it's unlikely most viewers noticed the difference.

It wasn't until the proceedings moved into the Commons that the more serious business of examining the contents of the speech got under way.

And it was that programme that sparked one of the most effective performances by Tory leader William Hague since the election.

Abandoning measures

He ridiculed the prime minister for abandoning key measures of legislation to give himself time to deal with rebellions from the Lords when he tries to push through his legislation.

Promised laws had only been brought forward as drafts bills or consultation papers which would ensure there was no action well into the next session, he insisted.

John Prescott
John Prescott bore the brunt of Hague's remarks
And he succeeded in bringing deputy prime minister to the brink of a volcanic eruption by taunting him over the lack of any legislation in his department.

"We can see who the winners and losers are around the cabinet table. The winners have got a bill, the losers have got a draft bill, the real losers have got their proposals taken forward, the completely defeated have got a consultation paper.

"And for those who have got nothing at all at least there's the consolation of being deputy prime minister," he said.

Mr Prescott and Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown - who has forged an informal pact with the government - should form a club of people who "give unquestioning support to the government and get very little in return," he said.

The deputy premier looked as if he was about to leap over the despatch box and engage Mr Hague in some frank and full discussions.

Avoid controversy

But Mr Hague, smelling blood, persisted. He attacked the antics of paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson, whose business interests have seen him criticised three times by Commons committees.

He claimed a series of key measures had been abandoned and he said the entire programme was designed to ensure the government could force through its attacks on the Lords and avoid controversial measures.

It was a speech packed with cutting jibes and hilarious personal attacks. And it left the prime minister looking distinctly uneasy.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair under attack
His performance looked lacklustre and worthy against Mr Hague's, as he insisted he had not slimmed down his programme to deal with rebellious Lords.

He scored points against the Tories by claiming Mr Hague had not addressed any of the serious issues and he claimed he was pressing ahead with the largest programme of change for years.

"There was absolutely nothing that you said of any interest at all on any major subject that concerns the public," he said.

Turning to Lords reform, the prime minister said it could not be right for it to be dominated by 750 hereditary peers, the vast bulk of whom took the Tory whip.

"That may suit the interests of the Tory Party but it doesn't satisfy the interests of the country.

"It is time we ended the feudal domination of one half of our legislature by the Tory Party that claims a divine right to govern Britain and makes a hash of it every time they do," he said.

Links to more Queen Speech stories are at the foot of the page.

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