This is a guest post by Conleth Burns, foreign law intern, who wrote a another post earlier this summer, UK Supreme Court rules “Deport first, appeal later” power is unlawful.
On June 21st 2017, HM Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the UK’s Parliament by delivering her 64th Queen’s Speech. Despite being called the “Queen’s Speech,” this speech is not written by the Queen herself but the UK government ministers. As head of state, it is the Queen’s constitutional duty to remain strictly neutral in all political matters. The speech is a list of proposed laws that the Government hopes to pass in the coming parliamentary period, usually one or two years. Effectively the Queen’s speech is the Government’s mission statement for the parliamentary term. While the tradition surrounding a State Opening of Parliament by the monarch can be traced back to the sixteenth century, the current ceremony dates from 1852.
When Theresa May called the 2017 general election, few expected the Queen’s Speech to be pushed through by a Conservative minority Government supported by the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Despite being the largest party following the election, the Conservatives did not have enough seats to command a majority in the House of Commons and had to agree to a Confidence and Supply arrangement with the DUP to ensure control of the Queen’s Speech and the subsequent legislation to be passed through Parliament in this term. The election result was a surprise for many, when the snap election was called; the Tories were 20 points and more ahead in the polls. Through the campaign, and on polling day, the UK’s electorate for the second time in one year defied the polls and re-shaped the Queen’s Speech. This blog post will consider the forces which shaped the Queen’s Speech 2017.
Since the snap election was called, 1.05 million 18-24 year olds registered to vote. The Electoral Commission estimates that 34% of young people are not registered to vote, so there was a gap to bridge with young voters. Nonetheless, the London School of Economics found that turnout in places with a young voting population was markedly higher in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2010. YouGov indicated that Labour was 47 percentage points ahead when it came to first time voters. Ipsos MORI added that young voter turn-out was at its highest for 25 years. Prime Minister Theresa May commented about this upon her return to the House of Commons: “More young people going to the ballot box is a good thing,” continuing “those of us on this side of the House would have preferred more of them to vote for us.” The youth vote changed the anticipated composition of the House of Commons. The president of the National Union of Students reflected, now: “there is an opportunity for student campaigners to make a difference.”
Of the twenty seven bills in the Queen’s Speech, eight relate to Brexit. The Repeal Bill will “repeal the European Communities Act and provide certainty for individuals and businesses.” The bills on Customs and Trade will “implement an independent trade policy.” (Id. at 19-20) Immigration, fisheries, agriculture, nuclear safeguards, and international sanctions bills will introduce “new national policies” in order to “make a success of Brexit.” (Id. at 21-25) The Financial Times anticipated that these Brexit bills are: “the most weighty and will soak up the most parliamentary time — and face endless amendments from opposition parties.” To allow the Government to focus on the Brexit negotiations, next year’s anticipated Queen’s Speech will be cancelled, as happened in 2011 to support the fledging Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
In the course of the election period, Britain endured horrific tragedy. Terrorists attacked a concert in Manchester, pedestrians on London Bridge, and a group of Muslims leaving their worship at the Finsbury Park Mosque. Days after the election, a fire in the Grenfell Tower block in London claimed the lives of over eighty people. There was a need for the Queen’s Speech to respond to this series of tragic events. Consequently, the Government has promised a counter-terrorism review, along with establishing a commission to counter extremism of every shape and size. A public inquiry will seek to learn the harrowing lessons from the Grenfell Fire. Many factors contribute to the Queen’s Speech; these are the most distressing of all of them.
The Blank Spaces
Conservative manifesto promises of: reform of social care, expanding grammar schools, lifting the foxhunting ban, an end to free school meals for young children, and the scrapping of the winter fuel allowance are now absent from the Queen’s Speech. In terms of public finances, the Government submits that they will “reflect on the message voters sent at the General Election,” which suggests a move away from the austerity policy of the previous Conservative Governments. In this case, what is absent from the Queen’s Speech is just as relevant as what is included.
The House of Lords
What is left out of the Queen’s Speech poses a constitutional challenge to the UK’s Parliament. The Salisbury Convention (which is not law, but a constitutional convention) holds that the House of Lords (the UK’s unelected Upper House) should not obstruct government manifesto commitments for which the government has a mandate from the electorate. As Professor Mark Elliott notes: the question of whether the House of Lords can disregard the Salisbury Convention in a minority government “cannot be determined in isolated for the view of relevant political actors.” While the House of Lords cannot vote down the Queen’s Speech in the immediate term, their political calculations over the next two years of this session of Parliament will help shape the true impact of this Queen’s Speech.
Impact of the Queen’s Speech
Prime Minister Theresa May finished her speech to the House of Commons by saying: “The Queen’s Speech on its own will not solve every challenge that our country faces—not every problem can be solved by an Act of Parliament—but it is a step forward to building a more compassionate, united and confident nation.” With a minority in the House of Commons, a more collaborative approach will need to be adopted by all sides to advance Brexit legislation through the House. Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon stated that we are going to: “require a different approach and an even more collective approach than we had.” The Queen’s Speech in its more skeletal form is evident of the journey towards building more consensus in Parliament.
A significant challenge to this collective approach will be how the Government engages with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Interestingly, when opening the Queen’s Speech debate, the Prime Minister indicated that: ‘There is a possibility that a legislative consent motion may be required in the Scottish Parliament,” to endorse the Brexit Deal. This is a change of tactic from the Government; as they did not seek a legislative consent motion from devolved administrations when triggering of Article 50. Indeed, the Supreme Court recently confirmed that the Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament: “did not have a legal veto on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.” (R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union  UKSC 5 ¶77 150). They qualified this by saying that they do not underestimate “the important role (Legislative consent Motions perform) in facilitating harmonious relationships” (Id.) between Westminster and the devolved administrations. Faced with a smaller majority where building harmonious relationships is a necessity to ensuring stability, the UK government may have been forced to change tactic.
For the first time since 1974, the Queen’s Speech had fewer ceremonial elements. The Queen arrived in a car, not a carriage. She wore a dress, not a robe. She did not wear her crown. This was not the political coronation of Prime Minister May that was widely expected when the Snap Election was called. This was a coronation for the UK’s electorate; they decided to shape and write their Queen’s Speech in the Ballot Box on June 8, displaying the power of the electorate once again.