Given the conflicting priorities, personality clashes and short lead time involved in putting together today’s Queen’s Speech, it is testament to the political will behind the coalition government that the Queen was able to read out a full list of bills at all.
Some of what has been announced today demonstrates quite how much the coalition partners have in common. Scrapping of ID cards, removing unitary council status for Norwich and Exeter, and eviscerating quangos are all policies which both sides of the government can agree on.
Other measures contain enough compromises in them to ensure that the fragile bonds of the coalition will remain intact – so the planned national insurance rise (remember Labour’s ‘jobs tax’ from the campaign, then supported by the Lib Dems) will be stopped, but the rise in contributions for employees will go ahead. Similarly, legislation expected to be introduced after the summer recess will enshrine Michael Gove’s plan for "free schools", but the Lib Dems’ "pupil premium" will also be included in the legislation. The Tories will also be delighted that the Lib Dems, led by slasher-in-chief David Laws, are so closely associated with the public sector cuts outlined by the Treasury yesterday.
But it’s not just this weekend’s wholesale leak of the contents of today’s Speech that may test the claims that we are in an era of shiny new politics. For those with an eye on the stability of the coalition, there are one or two chinks of light shining through the Con-Lib fabric, which have the potential to accumulate into real cracks that could tear this new government apart.
Take the Parliamentary Reform Bill, likely to be introduced before the summer recess. There are lots of goodies in here for the Lib Dems, including fixed-term parliaments and a probable referendum on changing the electoral system. But other elements in the Bill – a wholly elected House of Lords, and the controversial ’55% rule’ for dissolving Parliament – could produce a wide ranging rebellion on the Tory benches. This may be the first true test of the coalition government.
Should Cameron and Clegg clear this hurdle, other hazards remain. Many of these are not in today’s speech, but have been very deliberately postponed until further notice. The banking review, kicked into the long grass for a year, will report next May. Depending on what this says about the break-up of banks, and on how and whether its findings are implemented by George Osborne, this could see a seemingly intractable difference between Osborne and Vince Cable turning fairly grim. The bookies who make Vince Cable the clear favourite to be the first Cabinet Minister to resign from Government have clearly got their eye on this one.
Similarly, when the Government acts upon the findings of Lord Browne’s review into higher education funding, we can expect somewhat of a bunfight between the anti-tuition fee Lib Dems and the Tories, who are likely to propose a policy of increased fees. And implementing whichever decision is taken will be the responsibility of, you guessed it, the unfortunate Vince Cable.
Perhaps the strangest policy from a coalition perspective is that of new nuclear power. The coalition agreement allows the anti-nuclear Lib Dems an opt-out from supporting government policy in this area, although the Secretary of State in charge of the measures to introduce nuclear is Lib Dem Energy Secretary Chris Huhne. Mr Huhne will be allowed to speak against the policy, and abstain from any vote, but then be expected to implement it once it is passed. Not so much new politics as old farce.
But despite being littered with potential time bombs, and a few glaring holes in the issues under review, this Queen’s Speech does demonstrate that we do have a Government that is fairly confident of getting things done. The sheer will for stability – and power – shared by Cameron and Clegg at the top of the coalition tree will be hard to shake, even by the odd Parliamentary rebellion.
Yet today’s announcement could contain the first hints of the fate facing this coalition government, a fate which could bring a wry smile to the face of arch coalition advocate David Laws: death by a thousand cuts.