Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Monday, 1 December 2008

Will Queen deliver surprises?

By Gary O'Donoghue
BBC political correspondent

State Opening of Parliament
The Queen's Speech is a long-established Parliamentary highlight

Call me old fashioned, but the Queen's Speech is not what it used to be.

Yes, there is still lots of pomp and circumstance and enough ermine to keep us all warm throughout the harsh winter, but ever since last year - when Gordon Brown began publishing a draft legislative programme several months ahead of the main event - the room for surprises has been drastically reduced.

So, back in May, 18 pieces of legislation were floated, ranging from the inevitable Policing Bill (there is always one of those - and some kind of education bill) right through to proposals for an NHS constitution, more welfare reform and, possibly, plans to make it an offence to pay for sex with a prostitute who has been trafficked.

Some of those proposals have already created significant debate, such as the draft Communications Data Bill, which would make it easier for the security services to access data about how we use our mobile phones and our internet and email communications.

Cabinet arguments

Also the Coroners Bill, which would allow ministers to prevent juries sitting on terrorism-related inquests - a measure they had to drop from the Counter-Terrorism Bill in the session that has just finished because of significant opposition in the House of Lords.

And there are rumours of continuing arguments within cabinet over how far to go on further restrictions on the advertising of tobacco.

But what has not yet emerged is an overarching theme for a programme which will have to fight for attention against what are expected to be angry Commons exchanges over Damian Green's arrest.

The Queen's Speech is still the government's shop window and, like any other retailer in these straightened times, it has got to tempt the punters in with a few offers.
Gary O'Donoghue

Opposition MPs have already protested loudly at the fact that the next parliamentary session is only scheduled to have 128 days in it - the lowest number for more than a decade.

They say that it demonstrates that the government has run out of ideas.

But the prime minister has sought to counter that by arguing that, rather than reducing Parliament's importance, he is proposing to increase it by, for example, giving MPs the right to vote on decisions like going to war.

The truth, though, is that recession has changed everything and legislation is taking a backseat to executive action. Think about it.

VAT order

How much legislation was required to implement the 400bn banking bail-out? Virtually none.

How much legislation was required to change the rate of VAT? A simple parliamentary order.

A useful change would be for the government to allow the taxpayer to say how their money is spent
Steve Grant, Ipswich

In other words the big decisions might get debated in Parliament, MPs might feel better for venting their spleen about the fiscal stimulus, but there is not much in the way of actual measures on the table at present that they can vote down before next year's Budget and the consequent finance bill.

Defeat that and there would be an immediate general election.

Nevertheless, the Queen's Speech is still the government's shop window and, like any other retailer in these straightened times, it has got to tempt the punters in with a few offers.

Energy firms

So there is talk of bills being dropped to make room for further economic measures to counter the recession.

Indeed, the prime minister has said to expect something "in the next few days" on the knotty problem of freeing up lending to small businesses.

Legislation also has its uses as a threat.

So ministers have previously hinted that, if the energy companies do not start cutting bills as oil prices fall, then they might start passing laws to make them do so.

Similarly, senior backbenchers like Labour's John McFall, chairman of the Treasury select committee, have called for action to ensure that the banks start lending the money back to taxpayers that we have just given them.

But, even if there are no big surprises, the state opening of Parliament and the Queen's Speech often serve to rally the governing party and its supporters and, in this case, could well fire the starting pistol for the next general election.

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