After its first attempt at proroguing parliament was found to be unlawful by a unanimous Supreme Court, the government now seems set on a shorter prorogation, to be followed by a Queen’s Speech. Robert Hazell argues that a Queen’s Speech is not just unnecessary, it is also undesirable if the government wants an early election.
In the past couple of weeks the Queen has been wrong-footed by two of her Prime Ministers. On 19 September there was the disclosure by David Cameron in his memoirs that he had sought the Queen’s help when he feared the Scottish independence referendum might be lost. And on 24 September the Supreme Court delivered its judgment declaring that Boris Johnson’s advice to the Queen to prorogue parliament for five weeks had been unlawful. It followed that the Order made by the Queen in Council to prorogue parliament was itself unlawful, null and void.
Buckingham Palace indicated its ‘displeasure’ at the first episode. On the second, the Palace has maintained a dignified silence; but it is said that when Boris Johnson phoned the Queen upon his early return from New York, he apologised for giving her unlawful advice. Although that in itself provoked a constitutional thunderclap, there may be even bigger thunder clouds to come if Johnson persists with his plans for a Queen’s Speech in mid-October, while also calling for early elections.
Few commentators have remarked on this, but there is an inherent contradiction between these two objectives. A Queen’s Speech usually follows an election, rather than preceding one. If it is delivered in mid-October, and is swiftly followed by an election in November, then the Queen’s Speech will be not so much the government announcing the legislative programme for the next session, but more of an election manifesto. The Queen will have been used to make a Conservative party political broadcast.
It is true that Queen’s Speeches have long been used by governments for propaganda purposes, weaving a political narrative around an otherwise dull list of legislative measures, with catchphrases to reinforce the political messaging. But the speech has always been followed by a legislative session in which those bills were introduced. This would be the first Queen’s Speech when the government had no real intention of introducing the bills it had just announced, because it hoped that within weeks parliament would be dissolved for an early election.
There are several reasons why a Queen’s Speech seems not merely unnecessary, but undesirable at this juncture, with just four weeks left until the Brexit deadline:
- The first is the loss of critical parliamentary time. A Queen’s Speech would require parliament to be prorogued for several days to end the current session, and it is conventionally followed by a five day debate to start the new session. During that time new legislation – related to Brexit or otherwise – will not be tabled or debated. Approximately two out of the remaining four weeks before Brexit day would therefore be lost.
- The second reason is the cost and expense of an elaborate state ritual, with much pomp and circumstance, which if it has no real purpose, would risk making Britain even more of a laughing stock in the eyes of Europe and the wider world.
- The third is that with no majority to deliver his ambitious policies, Boris Johnson’s legislative proposals risk being empty rhetoric rather than a serious legislative programme. It is not impossible for minority governments to pass legislation; but they need to reach across the aisle to garner cross-party support, which so far Johnson has shown no inclination to do.
- The fourth and most fundamental issue, however, is that it would bring more embarrassment to the Queen, dragging her again into political controversy. Boris Johnson has already caused the greatest constitutional controversy of her reign; he should not further abuse her position.
The House of Commons Library explains that: ‘The State Opening of Parliament marks the formal start of the parliamentary year and the Queen’s Speech sets out the government’s agenda for the coming session, outlining proposed policies and legislation’. The government needs to make up its mind whether it wishes this parliament to continue; or whether it would prefer an election. All the signs are that it would prefer an election. If indeed the government hopes for an election and for there to be no coming session of parliament, then the Queen’s Speech is a sham.
The Queen will not have been amused when the Supreme Court concluded that ‘when the Royal Commissioners walked into the House of Lords [to announce the prorogation] it was as if they walked in with a blank sheet of paper’. Her Majesty will be even less amused if in mid-October she is required to walk into the House of Lords with an equally blank sheet of paper, purporting to be a legislative programme, but in fact being a trailer for the Conservative party’s election manifesto.
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About the author
Professor Robert Hazell was the first Director of the Constitution Unit, and closely involved with helping the Cabinet Office draft the Cabinet Manual. He is currently working on a comparative study of European monarchies, due to be published next year.