The Queen's Speech sets out a threadbare domestic agenda – particularly in health
Parliamentary arithmetic dictates that controversial legislation cannot be passed through a Hung Parliament. Yet, this Queen’s Speech is one of the most controversial in history.
The law of parliamentary arithmetic dictates that controversial legislation cannot be passed through a Hung Parliament. And so, from the moment the exit poll result was revealed on 8 June, ministers and officials would have been recalibrating their expectations of what could be achieved in legislative terms. It is therefore no surprise that so many manifesto commitments were dropped from this Queen’s Speech: legislation on energy prices, grammar schools, social care, and on health reform has all been discarded – and much else besides. On many of these issues, green papers are promised as pale echoes of what might have been – but do not be fooled. There is no hope of legislating on these controversial matters, whatever the outcome of the consultations may be.
And yet, the Government is attempting to break these laws of parliamentary arithmetic – because this Queen’s Speech is one of the most controversial in history. It contains eight Bills on Brexit – an issue on which the country, and the Conservatives (not to mention Labour), are so fiercely divided that there is no hope that they will pass through Parliament unscathed. To make matters worse, the Prime Minister is so enfeebled that she has no authority to whip the Conservatives to vote the way she wishes in the Commons. Furthermore, the House of Lords – just as free of the constraints of the Salisbury Convention as it was before the general election – smells blood on every single measure. Make no mistake, if the Government could avoid Brexit legislation, it would.
But the Government is trapped in a hopeless situation. It has triggered article 50, and as a result many of our laws will be inoperable on 29 March 2019. Good government demands that this situation is rectified, and so new legislation to make our law work properly has to be passed before that date. But there is no stable Parliamentary majority to see the legislation through.
Where this will end is surely in another General Election. First, because there is no means of avoiding the controversial legislation: unless the EU27 agree otherwise, the article 50 process cannot be paused or revoked and the March 2019 cut-off date is fixed, absolutely. Second, because there is no hope of a stable Parliamentary majority: the Conservative Party has no ‘King over the Water’ who can become its leader and magically bind the Fox-ites, the Hammond-ites and the Remainers together with the DUP in an homogenous and docile parliamentary whole. And third, because the Brexit legislation is so vitally important that the Government will have to make clear that votes on it are confidence issues. To summarise – the Government has no option but to bring forward vital and controversial legislation, which it will lose on votes of no-confidence.
And so there will be a General Election. But when that General Election will be, what it means for Brexit, and what the result will be, is anyone’s guess.
Until then, and beyond Brexit, we have a threadbare domestic agenda – and particularly so in health. Jeremy Hunt’s longstanding aspiration to turn the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch into an independent body looks like it might at last be achieved, but the Bill to achieve it is in draft and will have to navigate its way through pre-legislative scrutiny first (it wasn’t even mentioned by the Queen). The Queen’s Speech outlined plans to reform mental health legislation, but the briefing materials accompanying the Queen’s Speech listed mental health reform only as a non-legislative measure: peculiar, yes, but these are peculiar times. In any case, the Government would be wise to avoid such legislation: there is no consensus to be achieved on when people can be coerced into treatment, which is what mental health laws are for, and the Government has precious little capital to burn up with yet more controversy.
It is a reasonable guess then that, with work to do even before legislation on mental health and patient safety is introduced, followed by a Hung Parliament saturated with Brexit legislation – and the likelihood of another General Election soon - these measures will not reach the statute book for years, if ever. Because although virtually all the laws of politics are being broken all over the world at the moment, the law of parliamentary arithmetic is likely to hold up pretty well.
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