How does Theresa May plan to spend the six-month Brexit extension? Nearly one month in and there is little sign of a Brexit breakthrough. The Labour/Tory talks are ongoing yet those inside the room are pessimistic they will lead to an imminent solution. It now seems as though there won’t be much in the way of domestic legislation either.
In a lobby briefing, a Downing Street spokesman has suggested that the next Queen’s speech is to be postponed:
‘What we are focused on is the withdrawal agreement bill [WAB], because that is the legislation which is necessary in order to ratify our withdrawal from the EU. That is part of the current Queen’s speech cycle and we need to finish that work.’
A new Queen’s speech – introducing a new session of parliament and a legislative programme to go with it – had been due around June, two years on from the last one which marked a special two-year Parliamentary session. There is only one item left to complete in the current one – and that’s the big Brexit bill. No. 10 are reluctant to hold a vote on this as were MPs to reject it – as they would in the current climate – the government would have completed its programme and have to prorogue Parliament and present a new Queen’s speech. In order to avoid this, they plan to put off a vote and try and busy MPs with motherhood and apple pie legislation on issues like the environment, renting and victim support.
As I reported previously on Coffee House, a Queen’s speech is seen as a maximum point of danger for the government. Were it to be voted down the government would fall – and an election likely follow. There is reason to believe any Queen’s speech now has a high chance of being voted down. The government only has a working majority when it counts the support of the DUP. Yet the Tories’ confidence and supply agreement with the DUP only lasts the current session, so a whole new negotiation would have to take place to win the DUP’s support for the next session. Given that relations between Theresa May and Arlene Foster’s party are at an all-time low, this won’t be easy. Any Queen’s Speech could also be ‘hijacked’ by a Tory faction and used to force government’s hand on Brexit. There has already been talk of a vote strike amongst the European Research Group in protest at the Prime Minister’s handling of Brexit. The DUP and the European Research Group could team up to say they wanted the Withdrawal Agreement scrapped entirely.
There’s also the matter of Theresa May’s longevity. The Prime Minister has said she’ll step down once the first stage of Brexit is complete. This is why many in the party thought the best way forward was to pass the deal and then have May’s successor present a Queen’s speech. However, the lack of progress on Brexit means that this option is a lot more complicated – as there is no clear exit date. Were May to present a new legislative agenda, her colleagues would question whether she really planned to step down as promised.
It follows that there is good reason the government is putting off a Queen’s speech. The view in Downing Street is that there is nothing to force the government to present one – unless they pass the final bill or have MPs reject it and thereby complete this session’s legislative agenda. However, there are risks to not presenting one. Historically, a Queen’s speech presents an opportunity for a government to grab the news agenda and show what it wants to do. With no major domestic legislation left, the government instead risks looking in a state of indefinite paralysis – unable to deliver Brexit or anything else. A government that cannot wield enough support to start a new Parliamentary session is one that is running on borrowed time. But then again, a lot of voters had got that impression already.