Read more by John McTernan: The Republican Party will be relevant again
The Queen is the most experienced politician in Britain and its shrewdest observer and commentator. Our monarch has received briefings from her private office for over sixty years and had weekly audiences with twelve successive Prime Ministers. Those PMs differed in their politics and in their characters but, by all accounts, each was struck by the insight—and the wit—of the queen.
Brief glimpses of her that we have caught in documentaries confirms this. Who can forget her exchange with President Reagan? On hearing that she writes a daily diary, the President asked how she did that. “In my own hand,” came the acid response. Given this, there is one day that she must truly dread—the day of the Queen’s Speech. For any adult with intelligence and self-respect it would be demeaning to have to read out the lifeless boilerplate that these are written in, but imagine what it is like for her. It must be a royal Groundhog Day.
This year’s speech, given on Wednesday, was a triumph of mediocrity even when compared to the low benchmark set in previous years. There was an air of desperation about the attempt to create a theme for it. An attempt which did not even last 24 hours, because no plausible case can be made for connecting electric cars and faster adoption—two topics covered in the speech. The bulk of the words the Queen spoke were about good intentions:
“My government will use the opportunity of a strengthening economy to deliver security for working people, to increase life chances for the most disadvantaged and to strengthen national defences.”
The most over-used verb was “continue,” though it was appropriate in a sense, given that virtually all of the twenty pieces of legislation covered in the speech had already been announced. Even then, the diary had to be raided for filler:
“Prince Philip and I look forward to welcoming His Excellency the President of Colombia on a State Visit in November.”
Thanks for telling us that, Your Majesty, thought a grateful nation, reflecting on the possibility that Queen was not looking forward even a little bit to all the other forthcoming state visits.
Anyway, the truth is that this Queen’s Speech had only one purpose: to give an air of “business as usual” to the period after the EU referendum on 23rd June. The spectre that haunts Downing Street is a party unable to heal the bitter divisions that have not just surfaced in the referendum campaign but which have been forcefully, indeed forcibly, surfaced by it.
Politics is a contact sport, and bruising encounters may be part and parcel of a referendum campaign that can be put aside when ministers next sit round the Cabinet table. But others can’t. Then there was the briefing and counter-briefing given by Number 10 regarding Cameron’s alleged plan for a “revenge reshuffle”—demoting pro-Brexit ministers after a “Remain” vote. Furthermore, it looks as though rebel Tory MPs could defeat the Queen’s speech: 25 eurosceptic Tories are expected to back an amendment to it concerning TTIP. This gives just a taste of what will happen if the dispute over British membership of the European Union (EU) continues to be such a sensitive topic.
The problem that Cameron faces is that divisions over Europe are ideological—two strands of conservatism are in contest—while his legislative programme is ruthlessly pragmatic.
That pragmatism is a deliberate attempt to get the Conservative Party back on track by giving Tories issues they can unite around. Prison reform, which is central to the government’s agenda for the coming year, may fit that bill—and give Justice Secretary (and Brexit-leader) Michael Gove his place in the sun. But the modern transport bill, and talk about electric cars, doesn’t. What Cameron needs is a new ideological project that all the energy unleashed by the referendum can be directed into.
But Cameron has never had such a project, he is in many ways the least political Prime Minister we have had for decades. That may well have been a strength in persuading the public to give him a small majority, but it is his weakness as he seeks to bind his party together in the post-referendum period.