The Queen inspires more terror than George Osborne. That is the tempting conclusion to be drawn from comparing the Queen’s Speech (volume of advanced leaks: low) with the Budget (volume of advanced leaks: high). After all, Osborne can tax you but the Queen has the Tower of London…
Combined, however, they tried to set the political scene for the next year and, for all the post-Budget pasty tax buffeting and current Lords reform headlines, they have mostly done so. Much of the government’s work is now concentrated on either economic recovery (which, aside from the annual round of Budget legislation is far more about policy and actions than legislation) or on implementing successfully the major pieces of legislation already passed by Parliament.
Hence the paucity of new legislation in the Queen’s Speech. Even the most hardened of cynic should have at least a twinge of sympathy for politicians, so often criticised for introducing new legislation just to be seen to be doing something, and then this time round attacked for not doing anything because the Queen’s Speech was not bursting with new proposals. A tax on punditry inconsistency could raise a penny or two…
The plan of senior Liberal Democrats is to focus heavily on delivering and communicating the four priorities from the front page of the party’s 2010 manifesto:
- “fair taxes – that put money back in your pocket
- “a fair future – creating jobs by making Britain greener
- “a fair chance – for every child
- “a fair deal – by cleaning up politics”
On taxes, this year has already seen a big step towards the £10,000 income tax allowance and moves to cap tax breaks for the very richest. The next few months must see action to match the rhetoric on tax avoidance and evasion. Early signs show promise – especially the news that RSM Tenon is closing its specialist tax division saying that rule changes means there is no longer enough of a market for its services.
Across jobs, the economy and education, again the story will be of implementation – making the Green Deal and Green Investment Bank a success, implementing banking reform and ensuring the Pupil Premium works. It is no coincidence that on being promoted to the Cabinet Ed Davey picked as one of his special advisors Chris Nicholson, someone with long experience of policy implementation.
It will be a case of implementation, implementation, implementation for the party’s ministers and repetition, repetition, repetition for the party’s campaigners.
The story is slightly different on political reform and the big battle over Lords reform. It was deliberately fourth of the four front page priorities and seventh in the list of eleven points highlighted in the party’s post-Queen’s Speech briefing document. In other words, not nearly as important as the economy – but still important and with the current rows certainly headline grabbing.
With ministers getting on with implementation, the scope for new inter-coalition legislative tensions should be limited outside of Lords reform, but there are two likely flashpoints. The plans for online snooping will be controversial, especially as civil liberties is central to what makes so many Liberal Democrat activists liberal and active.
Then there is deregulation. The “Red Tape Challenge” has been more conspicuous for the amount of red tape preserved than cut, with a steady Liberal Democrat rearguard action against Steve Hilton’s wilder flights of deregulation fantasy. “I spend most of my time trying to stop Steve Hilton doing things,” was how one Lib Dem in government described their role to me last year, only half joking. Even with Steve Hilton now out of the country, there is plenty of scope for more coalition tensions in this area, especially as some Tories eye up workers’ rights for the chop.
Yet both Clegg and Cameron are still determined to show coalition can work, believing their own parties can only gain political credit if the public believes that between them the parties are able to govern effectively – and get the economy right.
For better or worse, the two key Liberal Democrat ministers on the economy – Vince Cable and Danny Alexander – are secure in their jobs and not due for a reshuffle, even though David Laws’s return is all but certain. “We’re all expecting it,” is what one of Clegg’s team said when we were last chatting on the topic.
However, the policy agenda coming out of Vince Cable’s department is rather on the thin side and Danny Alexander has been the Liberal Democrat Francis Maude. Admirable in many ways, but really not the man you want to put in front of Jeremy Paxman on a tricky political day. Even so, a return to Clegg’s Economic Plan A – Laws at the Treasury – is unlikely when the Deputy Prime Minister does the tricky political juggling that is the next reshuffle.
Whatever shuffling does happen, the Liberal Democrat message will focus strongly on the front page of the 2010 general election manifesto – fairer taxes, the Pupil Premium, green investment and political reform.