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Last Updated: Friday, 9 November 2007, 17:47 GMT
Martha Kearney's week
By Martha Kearney
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

Gordon Brown and David Cameron
The Queen's Speech smiles were not to last long

If it is Black Rod, the Silver Stick in waiting and forced polite conversation between politicians who can't bear each other, then it must be the State Opening of Parliament.

On Tuesday the richer peers who own their own ermine got their robes out of mothballs.

Others, like Baroness Kennedy, got up at the crack of dawn to be sure to win a set in the annual ballot.

This was the first year in several centuries when the man charged with delivering the speech to the Queen - the Lord Chancellor - was a commoner, Jack Straw.

It used to be the time-honoured tradition that the Lord Chancellor would walk backwards.

That could be an anxiety-provoking moment as frail old men like Lord Hailsham teetered backwards down the steps.

Straw turnaround

In 1998 Labour, in a bold constitutional move abolished the tradition, so there was surprise at Westminster when Mr Straw attempted the Backward two step.

Why? Well, he told me, the real reason was that the Lord Chancellor's robes were suited to a giraffe and he was scared that if he tried to turn around, he would trip, as had happened recently on a non-public occasion.

The sight reminded me of Labour's awkward tussle over continuity versus change.

In his early weeks Gordon Brown wanted to signal a change from the Blair years.

One way was to stress a more consensual approach by announcing a draft Queen's Speech to allow time for consultation.

Jacqui Smith
The home secretary has a parliamentary battle on her hands

The problem with that tactic was that, at the very moment Gordon Brown was in need of some new momentum, the vast majority of the measures seemed very familiar.

That may not worry many Labour backbenchers like Jon Cruddas, who told us he welcomed the speech, especially the housing target of three million new homes by 2020.

It will be interesting to see if the polls react as favourably.

The Queen's Speech debate provoked the most bitter exchange to date between David Cameron and Gordon Brown and that is saying something.

At stake was whether Labour had copied Tory plans on inheritance tax.

The Treasury has released documents to prove the proposal was planned a long way back.

The Conservatives retort that they prove nothing of the kind.


It's all reminiscent of one of those rows which blow up during an election campaign and is likely to end in a nil-all draw.

The most controversial measure in the government's programme is a plan to extend the period for which terror suspects can be held without charge beyond the current 28 days.

Opposition parties remain to be convinced, though the parliamentary revolts expert Philip Cowley told us that he didn't expect that there would be as many Labour rebels this time as under Tony Blair.

John Denham, a sceptic as the chair of the home affairs select committee, now says there is new evidence in favour.

He, though, is a Cabinet minister now.

Mr Denham's successor as committee chairman, Keith Vaz, is much more concerned about extending the period, as he told us on Wednesday.


Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's unusual public position is that she doesn't know what the extension should be, although her junior ministers Tony McNulty and Lord West have both talked about at least 50 days.

It seems we are in for some parliamentary haggling in the year ahead which, as a former chief whip, Ms Smith is used to.

She is in for a difficult session.

To make things worse, she is having to defend the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, who is under attack over the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes.

If he does end up resigning, it will rebound on her.

On Thursday, we reported on the Independent Police Complaints Commission findings, which were pretty critical of the Met.

Former home secretary Kenneth Clarke joined the ranks of those who want Sir Ian to go.

No doubt the dust will have settled by the time I come back from holiday, though, with my track record, some enormous story will break while I am away.

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