27 May 2015

Queen’s Speech: a Tory ‘kaleidoscope’ government’s programme

David Cameron tried to set a series of tests for Labour leadership contenders. Support free schools, support the right to buy? He actually got an instant though qualified reply to one challenge when Harriet Harman said that Labour was now sympathetic to the idea of reducing the cap on welfare to £23,000 per household.


David Cameron acknowledged that Alex Salmond was back in the chamber, joking that for a man who wanted to leave the UK he seemed to find it strangely difficult to stay away from its parliament. The PM made no reference to the forlorn figure of Nick Clegg sitting opposite him and once a pretty important part of his working life.

Nick Clegg sat next to Tom Brake and across the aisle from John Pugh (who called for him to resign a year ago after the 2014 Euro elections). He has taken up residence in the seat that used to be occupied by the SNP parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, who has now usurped him as leader of the third party here.

In his speech, the outgoing Lib Dem leader said the Conservatives’ proposals included a “turbo-charged snoopers’ charter”. He said the budget in July would show just how “one nation” the new government was. He said David Cameron’s energy would be “devoured” by Europe in the months ahead and that the PM looked ambivalent on the in/out question. David Cameron hadn’t hung around to listen. Hardly any of his government had.

Nick Clegg had to wait until John Redwood had spoken, Emily Thornberry and Cheryl Gillan too, before a much emptied Commons heard from him,  his speech now in the section of the debate in which backbenchers’ contributions are limited to 12 minutes.

John Redwood, by the way, in a moment of candour, said the electorate didn’t much like any of the parties on offer but happened to dislike the Tories a bit less.

Former minister Simon Burns, at the start of the new session, proposing a vote of thanks for the Queen’s Speech, said it was a joy to be in office in a Tory kaleidoscope government. It was through, he said, a kaleidoscope that all was blue and blessedly without yellow, purple or red. “Pretty rubbish kaleidoscope,” came the shout from the Labour benches – it must’ve been Chris Bryant.

Outside some SNP MPs watched the carriages and guardsmen. One said to me, motioning at parliament and the pomp in front, that it was all designed to awe and it was hard not to be impressed. Another SNP MP, Chris Law, said it was not entirely to his taste and it was time to get on with work.

I could see Alex Salmond going through the standing orders of the House of Commons with a pen throughout the afternoon proceedings. Maybe he is looking for loopholes, scope for mischief and influence beyond the SNP’s numbers here. Maybe he is, as the SNP’s Pete Wishart complained in the Commons, exploring how the government can hope to bring in English votes for English laws without a bill.

I wonder how the Speaker’s reprimand to SNP MPs will look to their supporters if it appears on many bulletins. A smattering of SNP MPs repeatedly clapped Angus Robertson during his speech but when things got heated they clapped in unison. Speaker Bercow said they should respect the conventions of the house just as he would respect their right to be heard.

But you can imagine the frustration for SNP MPs, popular on an extraordinary scale in Scotland by British election history, but amounting to less than 10 per cent of this chamber and drowned out by rivals’ muttering, finding it hard to command the room.

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