A mere nine weeks have separated the previous Queen’s speech from the one that was delivered by the monarch on Thursday from the throne at Westminster. Boris Johnson’s government was the author of both, and parliament has barely had time to sit during the gap in between. So it might have been reasonable to assume that the two speeches – each of which sets out a Johnson government’s legislative agenda – contained fundamentally the same programme. In fact they were significantly different.
The difference is explained by one thing: the result of the general election in between. The October speech was a political stunt launched in defiance of a divided parliament, designed to force the issue of Brexit so that Britain could leave the EU by 31 October. Its object was to cast critics of the government’s Brexit strategy as blockers and wreckers. It contained nothing concrete about fundamental subjects such as social care and climate change. It was a disgrace.
This week’s speech can certainly not be described as gimmick-free. Large parts of it are also constructed around vague generalities which have not yet hardened into legislative plans. But it is far heavier on substance and strategy than its predecessor. This all reflects Mr Johnson’s emphatic election victory and his working majority. These have opened up new priorities as well as some of the old ones, and now he has the votes to deliver.
Brexit remains the top item of Mr Johnson’s business, now as before. It was the first item in the new speech and it was followed, on Thursday afternoon, by the re-presentation of the government’s withdrawal agreement bill, which received a formal first reading. It gets its second reading on Friday. This procedural rush sets a very bad precedent. Bills are normally published at least 10 days before second reading, and for good reason. They ought to be studied before they are discussed. The new bill deals with the most major issue facing Britain. Proper parliamentary process should have been followed. There could be no clearer sign of the government’s intention to teach parliament a lesson and to clip MPs’ wings than this.
Everything in the Queen’s speech is focused on two complementary messages. First, that the Brexit gridlock of the last parliament is over; and second, that Mr Johnson’s domestic priority is the post-Brexit needs of the areas captured from Labour last week. But Brexit is not over. And the detail of the bills foreshadowed this week remains to be held up to the light – not least on immigration, employment and the environment. Nevertheless, the speech’s main theme, that prosperity must be redistributed across the country, is right. Its focus on the NHS, infrastructural investment, schools, social care and fighting crime points the way clearly enough.
Mr Johnson underscored some of this in his own speech later. But he did so in a boastful and hyperbolic posh-boy address, full of grating claims to head a people’s government and silly promises of a new golden age. It was understandable in some ways, but deeply ill-advised in others. Optimism and Jeremy Corbyn have helped Mr Johnson get where he is today. He now also needs to remember that he is not much trusted, even now, by many who voted for him. Confidence must be earned. He must also recognise the challenge from Scotland, underlined by Nicola Sturgeon on Thursday, which cannot just be met with snobbish insults. Mr Johnson needs to deliver. The Queen’s speech suggests he aims to do that. But the prime minister’s own speech shows he faces an uphill battle, not least against himself, if he is to do it.