Brexit will dominate political and parliamentary life for years to come. The weight of EU exit legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech could, as someone once said, stun a team of oxen in its tracks.
Not too long ago, a cabinet minister involved in these things told me that the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ alone could consume most of a standard parliamentary session. There are now seven more bills, covering such trifles as Britain’s immigration system, trade policy, customs arrangements, farms and fisheries. Parliamentarians will be wading through Brexit legislation for years to come, and every line of every bill could have real impact on British companies and people. Remember that when you hear analysts saying this was a thin or lightweight speech.
On the domestic front, meanwhile, the Speech confirms that Theresa May has had to abandon several of the more famous policies from the Conservative manifesto – grammar schools and means-testing the winter fuel payment are gone.
The PM has signalled that other measures will be watered down, perhaps when it becomes clear just how much, if any, authority she has over Parliament and her own party: the energy price cap and social care funding are both now subject to unspecified consultations at some point in the future. (However, don’t think the price cap is wholly dead: it seems clear that the Government will still seek to extend existing price protections for ‘vulnerable’ people, but it isn’t yet clear whether it will do that by legislating or by giving the job to OFGEM, the regulator.)
Broadly, Mrs May is confirming what the world knows: she is in a weak position, too weak to do the things she hoped her election would give her a mandate for. Yet for all that, it’s striking how little her political strategy has changed from that manifesto and the Conservative election campaign.
Fairer markets for consumers, especially those paying excessive energy bills. Action to make the private rented sector of the housing market more fair and transparent. A ‘major’ review of technical education. Promises on mental health and domestic abuse.
These are polices and words aimed at the same people the Tory manifesto was intended to reach: people who feel that the economy is rigged against them, that markets (especially for housing) favour richer older people over them. People who didn’t go to university and whose children may not go to university. People who think Tories are heartless and cruel and don’t care about what Mrs May has called the ‘burning injustices’ of modern British life.
In other words, Mrs May has changed and diluted the policies she is offering, but she has retained her political aim: to use domestic policy to reach out to voters beyond the Conservative base, while relying on her commitment to Brexit to lock in Leave-voting Tories and former Ukippers.
That strategy is now widely regarded as Westminster as a failure, but there is another view to consider.
At an SMF event this week, Professor John Curtice explained that for all the scorn it received, the Conservative election campaign did actually make progress towards its intended goal of winning over poorer voters in seats to the north of the party’s traditional strongholds. The problem, of course, was that the Tories didn’t make enough progress with working-class voters to offset Labour’s gains among southern, degree-educated voters. (You can see the Curtice talk here.)
Perhaps Mrs May has no choice. Perhaps she is simply too weak to change course now. But this speech, which follows on the appointment of a Cabinet team that largely backs her approach to domestic politics, suggests that for as long as she is in office, she will stick with that same strategy.
She’s weak, and she’s retreated. But she hasn’t turned. She’s still facing in the same direction, even if her ability to move in that direction has been painfully reduced.
James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph