Page last updated at 17:35 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Analysis: Electioneering Queen's Speech?

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

MPs who travelled by Tube to Westminster to hear the Queen's Speech would have seen a series of quotes by historical figures displayed in the train carriages - taking up the space which, in happier economic times, advertisements once occupied.

Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron at Queen's Speech 2009
Opposition leaders are suspicious of Mr Brown's motives

One of those quotes was from the successful left-wing businessman Friedrich Engels: "An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."

A sentiment echoed - perhaps bizarrely - these days by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

They say this Queen's Speech is mostly talk, not action, from the government - that many of the proposed bills will not have enough time to pass into law before the general election.

That said, in 1996, in his last few months in power, and with a smaller majority, Conservative Prime Minister John Major steered a similar number of bills though Parliament.

Chosen priorities

But the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg maintained that this year's speech consisted of "fantasy bills" and said that only two bills had passed into law in the six months following the last Queen's Speech.

The bigger question is perhaps, given that the next general election must happen no later than June next year, whether the government has chosen its priorities well?

There were 13 bills announced but the well-trailed Fiscal Responsibility Bill will eat up parliamentary time. It aims to commit a future government to reducing the burgeoning budget deficit by half in four years.

This fuels their suspicion that the government is more interested in playing politics in an election year than governing

Opposition critics say any government should simply get on and do this and does not need legislation to make it happen.

They say it would sit better as a manifesto pledge.

And this fuels their suspicion that the government is more interested in playing politics in an election year than governing.

If the opposition opposes the bill then, of course, ministers would attempt to say they alone have a plan to get public spending under control.

'Press release'

Alternatively they will challenge the Conservatives to say how quickly they would cut the deficit - and portray them as enthusiastic slashers of public services if they dare suggest it could be brought down more steeply.

But in the Commons David Cameron denounced the Fiscal Responsibility Bill as "a con" and said his party would not fall into any traps set for it by Labour.

He said the government was now acting "like an irresponsible opposition" - setting out to embarrass the Conservative Party rather than passing laws in the interests of the country.

Queen on her way to Parliament 2009
The Queen delivers the government's programme amid pomp and pageantry

He dismissed the entire Queen's Speech as "little more than a Labour press release printed on Palace parchment".

For the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, it was the Child Poverty Bill - enshrining in law a commitment to abolish poverty among children by 2020 - which was the prime example of political manoeuvring.

He said it would not put an extra penny into the system and "if laws could feed and clothe children" then no-one would be in poverty now.

Both he and David Cameron suggested the government's time would be better spent cleaning up MPs' expenses.

Bank bonuses

Elsewhere, though, there were a whole range of bills which were of substance.

But while in some cases, real change could happen before the next election, in others the government's promises would only be delivered if voters choose to re-elect them.

In the Personal Care at Home Bill, free personal care would be guaranteed for 280,000 people in England with serious dementia or Parkinson's disease.

But a more comprehensive National Care Service would only be introduced if Labour were returned to power.

Of the measures which the government does intend to implement in full, the Equality Bill could prove controversial

Equally, the populist measures in the Financial Services Bill - to limit bankers' pay and bonuses if their pay packages would reward undue risk - will apply only to new contracts in future, not to existing contracts.

Some aspects of the Queen's Speech were more about aspiration than legislation.

The government signalled it was in favour of high-speed rail, without exactly rushing towards that destination.

The Queen said her government would merely "respond to proposals for rail services between London and Scotland". Perhaps the cost would be too high to promise a bill.

And reform of the House of Lords was relegated to a draft bill.

Of the measures which the government does intend to implement in full, the Equality Bill could prove controversial.

It would place a duty on the public sector to narrow the gap between rich and poor and would allow employers to take "positive action" to appoint people from under-represented ethnic groups, so long as those candidates were "equally suitable" for the job.

While this may enthuse some potential Labour voters, it could provoke resistance in the Lords.

One of their number, Lord Mandelson, warned Conservative peers not to hold up Labour's legislation.

He said they would have to learn they were not the "masters in our political system". Perhaps the government ought to reconsider making reform of the upper house a mere draft piece of legislation?

And, given the low esteem in which politicians are held currently, there will be relief that a Bribery Bill aims to stamp out this practice, not encourage it.

For all the accusations that the Queen's Speech is about politicking, not governing, it is hard to believe that similar accusations could not have been levelled at previous governments.

But one aspect of this speech did mark a decisive break with tradition. The new Speaker eschewed his stockings and merely wore a cloak over a suit.

Not exactly everyday wear, granted, but perhaps a decisive step forward on the long road to modernisation.

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