Bernard Ingham: Queen’s Speech may come back to bite this fractious coalition

TODAY we shall witness something unique. The Speech from the Throne 
will be the first of its kind now that we have a fixed-term Parliament. Up to 
2010, the Queen’s Speech, to give it its weekday name, usually came in November and potentially the last of a Parliament was scoured for clues as to when the Prime Minister would call an election.

TODAY we shall witness something unique. The Speech from the Throne will be the first of its kind now that we have a fixed-term Parliament. Up to 2010, the Queen’s Speech, to give it its weekday name, usually came in November and potentially the last of a Parliament was scoured for clues as to when the Prime Minister would call an election.

Today, there is no mystery. We know we shall go to the poll in just under a year.

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The main interest now is whether the legislative programme outlined in the speech, with brief comments on the state of the nation and world, has any chance of occupying Parliament for a whole 12 months.

After all, the coalition is increasingly at odds. The Tories and Liberal Democrats are trying to differentiate themselves from each other and are not in an accommodating mood.

It may seem a miracle that they have been able to agree on anything with an election looming very large after Ukip’s recent performance.

But the Queen and tradition wait for no man. So we shall get some sort of speech in the splendour of the House of Lords and it may prove to be no more boring to the layman than those that have preceded it.

From this you may conclude that I am not a fan of this ceremonial. That is not entirely true.

There are things to be said for the whole occasion, apart from keeping us in touch with our past.

The shift of the gilded procession from autumn to summer may well be seen as an improvement if today is fine in London, given our need to attract tourists to improve our trade balance.

As a nation, we are still the bees-knees when it comes to ceremonial.

I say this as a former No 10 press secretary who only ever witnessed the early morning rehearsals for the State Opening. They manured Parliament Square and its tributaries into a rose grower’s paradise.

The Speech also brings together briefly in a state of unwonted amity, if only for the television cameras, the Government and Opposition as they process from Commons to Lords to be told what 
their work programme is for the year ahead.

This brings me to why I view the occasion with certain reservations. Far from being written by the Queen, the speech is cobbled together inevitably by a committee of Ministers who try to be relevant.

But there is great competition to get into the programme and sometimes legislation that is ready rather than desirable but unresolved makes up the 20 or so Bills it usually foreshadows.

Moreover, the speech can never be definitive. Governments always leave room for manoeuvre to cope with events. The speech is also not devised with a theme in mind – as I too often discovered when I tried to produce positive briefing on it. I have sweated blood over Queen’s Speeches.

This is precisely what this cackhanded government seems to be doing today. I have no problems with possible Bills to deal with slavery and human trafficking, improving the planning system or easing us controversially into the shale gas fracking era. We need the energy and the money.

It would also be comforting to see the Government pick up a Law Commission draft Bill to reform social care in view of all the horror stories we hear.

But the centrepiece seems likely to be a Bill to give voters the power to sack our wayward MPs.

In my book it is not the best timing to remind people of the Parliamentary expenses scandal immediately before an election, even with a Bill designed to reassure the populace – a Bill that, incidentally, was foreshadowed in the 2010 coalition agreement.

As for details, how do we define serious misconduct?

Who is going to rule on whether a petition by a substantial – very substantial, I hope – proportion of 
voters has made a legitimate case? Will it be the Parliamentary Standards Commission or, heaven forbid as is now claimed, a group of MPs? And who will be the first MP to challenge the attempt to sack him in the courts?

Frankly, I am unimpressed with this idea of voters “recalling” an MP who goes off the rails unless he commits serous crime, as distinct from speeding. We can get rid of the dross every five years.

It all goes to show that Queen’s Speeches are far from benign. This one could well bite the coalition in the buttocks. Legislating is a very dangerous game.