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Wednesday, 6 December, 2000, 12:43 GMT
A speech for the election
The Queen at the state opening of parliament
The Queen announced a light government programme
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

The government's fourth Queen's speech has given the clearest possible hint that Tony Blair is planning an election next May.

According to the speech: "it is a full programme that shows, unusually, a government gaining momentum in its fourth year, not losing it."

In fact, the programme of legislation set out in the speech is the lightest yet set out by the prime minister with almost half as many bills than its heaviest.

With a total of just 19 bills planned, it allows ministers to push through key legislation in time for a May poll.

Ministers are insisting that there are fewer bills because many of them - particularly on crime - are huge and will take up a lot of parliamentary time.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Tory leader William Hague
Blair and Hague squaring up for the election
But most MPs see the programme as paving the way for the next election.

It will allow the government to achieve some key policies and claim, when they get to the election, that they have kept their promises.

Mini-manifesto

There was always the temptation to pack the speech with radical measures, secure in the knowledge that at least half of them would never see the light of day.

But that would have seen the speech turned into a mini-manifesto with voters expecting the government to include any uncompleted business in its programme for a second term.

Ministers instead decided to offer half a Queen's speech - and a broadly uncontroversial one.

There are a couple of surprises, particularly the move to ban all tobacco advertising.

Ever since the Bernie Ecclestone affair - which saw Mr Blair facing his first great crisis - ministers have been hugely-sensitive about the issue.

But there is widespread support, particularly amongst Labour voters, for such a ban and Mr Blair has decided he can now press ahead with the move.

Equally the proposal to offer a free vote on fox hunting will go down well with Labour "heartland" voters.

Having successfully managed to delay the issue throughout its first three years, ministers are under intense pressure to meet their pre-election commitment.

Yob culture

Many still believe the free vote - with three options - is a cop out and some fear the whole issue, may still not be resolved before the next election.

The bill will run into trouble in the Lords and could well run out of parliamentary time.

But it is a populist policy which will go down well with the heartlands. Other policies, such as the move to outlaw curb crawling, will also prove popular.

But policies which could have landed the government with real headaches, notably the ban on clause 28, have been left out of the speech.

There is plenty of room for legislation to be brought in at any time, but the speech has given a clear indication of the government's pre-election platform and it is unlikely there will be any important or controversial additions.

Top of the list is the attack on crime an the "yob culture", followed by more action on the health service.

As usual, most of the contents of the speech had been widely forecast, but there was just enough to suggest the government has not run out of steam.

The language of the speech was also far less "political" than the previous three.

Tony Blair has faced accusations in the past of using the Queen to pump out pro-Labour propaganda. But there was little of that this time.

The full programme will only be revealed in detail over the coming days and weeks, but it is clear ministers do not want to be boxed in with an overly heavy pre-election workload.

So the overwhelming impression is that this is a Queen's speech for the next general election.


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