This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
The first Queen’s Speech in two years provides Team Cameron with the perfect platform to put the post-Budget blues behind them.
The PM has put down his marker that the May State Opening of Parliament will focus on the NHS, the family, welfare, education and, of course, economic growth.
Moving to fixed-term, five-year Parliaments has meant the Queen was absent from Westminster in 2011, and prime ministers rely on the State Opening as a ‘moment’ in the calendar to refocus the government’s attention on its priorities.
Cameron and his top team have now been through the heat of a Budget firestorm, with rows over VAT on pasties, the ‘granny tax’, a political funding scandal and, most recently, a war over email snooping. It is only in the heat of battle that comrades forge ties that can rarely be broken.
Those around the PM feel embattled but emboldened. They are conscious of the mistakes that have been made and, crucially in the world of politics, have been searingly honest internally about what went wrong.
But they are defiant, too. All can reel off a list of achievements by a coalition government that was dealt, by anyone’s standards, an awful hand in May 2010. Interest rates are at rock bottom, the CBI handed them a ‘love letter’ post-Budget for its growth-boosting measures and 800,000 people were given a boost with a new tax allowance. Council tax has been frozen, a potential planning nightmare has been defused and Alex Salmond’s chicanery with the United Kingdom’s future has been exposed and ridiculed.
There have been major changes to adoption and schooling, and the wasteful welfare system is slowly being brought under control. All of these gains have come despite the constant strains of coalition, a backdrop of economic agony and with a Labour Party full to the brim of eager and bright young MPs.
And so Team Cameron is approaching the Queen’s Speech on 9 May with an eye to the future. The growth agenda comes first. Respected commentators in the business world have commended its measures for introducing badly needed supply-side reform, while figures like the Treasury select committee chairman Andrew Tyrie and The Sun’s professorial commentator Trevor Kavanagh have sung its praises, too. There is also more supply-side reform is in the pipeline. Ministers well know the need to cut as much red tape as Brussels will allow, and they will continue to focus on family life and tackling the high cost of living.
House of Lords reform will be a key battleground in the Queen’s Speech. The prime minister has been forced to include the measure under severe pressure from Nick Clegg. But there are many deep in the heart of government who fully expect it to be kicked into the long grass come the autumn. “It’s not exactly high on the voters’ agenda, is it?” scoffs one Tory minister.
Welfare reform remains one of the most popular policies of the government. Radical changes are up Chris Grayling’s sleeve, as the question being asked is why those who don’t work should get more advantages than those who do.
Recent moves around dementia – drowned out by the post-Budget fallout – are another indication that the PM really does value dignity around health. More work on NHS commissioning is expected.
It is Oliver Letwin’s baby, the Queen’s Speech. He is described by the PM as “the government’s mainframe computer”. Not a single policy escapes his attention and he sees how it all fits together. Of course, the PM and Nick Clegg play central roles, as do the chancellor and his deputy Danny Alexander in the quad, but others intimately involved are chief whip Paddy McLoughlin and Lords leader Tom Strathclyde. They are the ones who are on top of the timing, the voting arithmetic, and who will be charged with delivering the bills.
Then there’s the changing personnel. Steve Hilton will be starting a new life on the Californian sunshine coast by the time Her Majesty next appears on her throne in Parliament, and the absence of Sir Gus O’Donnell at the helm of the government will also be felt. Other major figures who were present in May 2010 have long since gone.
Yet those around the PM are bullish. “We’ve had some pretty sober reflection,” says one, “and we must remind ourselves that we’re a pretty capable bunch. It’s not all about one or two people. It’s a team game and team is strong.
“We were handed a hospital pass, but we’ve achieved a lot, especially on the really big issues. We’re confident we can deliver much, much more.”
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications