Published on 6 May 2015

The Queen’s Speech

Over recent days I’ve been chatting to people in Whitehall and the Commons who have to umpire the messy game that could follow the general election. You get very different answers about the rules in play.

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For instance, I mentioned that senior Tories were thinking of testing Labour’s strength of purpose in a Queen’s Speech vote even if Labour, on paper, had more allies to form a rival government.

One source said that would be perfectly in order and agreed with the senior Tory who said one defeat wouldn’t be the end of the day; a minority government could come back with a fine-tuned Queen’s Speech in a spirit of humility, effectively conducting negotiations on the floor of the Commons.

Another source mocked that idea and said that a defeat on the Queen’s Speech could only be seen as sign that you couldn’t command the Commons – the “reputational damage” of carrying on after a defeat like that would be enough to put a party leader off that course of action.

I asked various sources how the Queen might feel about turning up in a grand ceremonial opening of parliament mode, lending the lustre and spectacle of the monarchy to what could be a political bear fight. Some say that’s no problem, and you get the sense their advice has been heard in Tory high command.

But you can’t help thinking that The Queen wouldn’t want to be used in that way. The Queen’s Speech is a moment when the monarch hopes to launch the ship of stable government. Would Her Majesty really want to watch it slide down the slipway with the soldering not finished and a distinct chance of it keeling over within sight of the dock?

Another source pointed out the option of a second royal proclamation delaying the Queen’s Speech if who could govern wasn’t clear in time for the set date of 27 May. That was perfectly possible, I was told, but would not be popular at the palace because it would almost certify the whole proceedings as a full-blown crisis.

Although the Queen’s private secretary will be operating out of Whitehall side by side with the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and their joint aim is to keep the Queen out of everything, the fact that we live under a constitutional monarchy with a Queen’s Speech tradition could influence the options on offer.

Another country with a republican system might think nothing of charging into parliament and testing the validity of two different parties’ claim to rule. Our parliament kicks off with a grand occasion that is meant to put the royal kite-mark on stable government and though there’s nothing in the rules to stop a Queen’s Speech that initiates a government that falls at the first fence (and there is distant precedent), would the palace really want it?

For those interested in the precedents for Tory governments hanging on for their Queen Speech to be voted down you can read the debates here:  18921923. Both times the Tories wanted to embarrass their opponents by making it clear who was voting with whom (Irish Nationalists with Gladstone Liberals in 1892, Liberals with Labour in 1923).

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3 reader comments

  1. anon says:

    just a thought really, it must be really strange for the Monarch to be expected to say whatever is put in front of her, is there any point when she could simply say no?

    if ‘strange’ stuff appeared on your autocues which must happen from time to time then your presenters wouldn’t read it out, but can the Queen ever do the same?

    wouldn’t be fairer for the Politicians to read out their own plans and allow the Monarch to sit behind them, it would be less tortuous arguably?

    there was a rumour obviously unfounded that she disapproved of the invasion of Iraq, but if this was the case, she wasn’t able to stop it?

  2. Alan says:

    Given those claiming to represent the people swear their allegiance to the crown only, where does that leave the fanciful notions of the article? The monarchy are not as impotent as you would have us believe.

  3. Andrew Dundas says:

    Both elections in 1974 are relevant and useful precedents for procedure. In the midst of industrial and economic chaos caused by the Tories’ monetary policy that had provoked runaway inflation, PM Ted Heath called an election. Neither Tories nor Labour achieved a majority of seats.
    Heath, the incumbent PM, tried to persuade Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Leader, to join him and the Tories in a coalition. But Thorpe didn’t take the bait, and Heath offered his resignation to the Queen. [Thorpe explained that the Tories’ economic policy had obviously failed, and had lost votes and seats in the election he’d called].
    The Queen also accepted PM Heath’s advice to invite Harold Wilson to form a government. Wilson did so in the shrewd expectation that the Liberals and Ulster Unionists would support a minority Labour government rather than throw the nation once more into chaos.
    There was a second election in October 1974, but the result was much the same. Liberals and Unionists lent their support on all confidence issues up until 1979, without ever forming a coalition.
    We now have another chaotic economy induced by an equally loony monetary policy, and with an election that will not provide any party with a majority. Will Clegg take the Tories’ bait, or will he follow the fine example of Jeremy Thorpe and give support to a minority Labour government? We shall see.

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