First came Charles and Camilla, followed a short while later in a black Range Rover by the Queen and her lady-in-waiting. This may have been a pared-back state opening of parliament for these Covid times – no posh frocks from the dressing-up box and tiaras from Claire’s accessories for the women in the Lords and just a handful of MPs in the Commons – but there were standards to maintain. For the crown if nothing else. That had arrived on its own in a chauffeur-driven limo. Part of its own levelling-up agenda no doubt.
This was the Queen’s first ceremonial public engagement since the death of Prince Philip, and she remains a class, deadpan act. It’s not everyone who could read out a list of Boris Johnson’s promises and give nothing away on the likelihood of at least half of them being broken. It took quite some doing not to even raise an eyebrow at some of the proposed legislation. Or at what was missing.
Was the government really going to repair the £350bn coronavirus hole in the economy just by being fiscally prudent? Did it really think it could pass off a cut in overseas aid as a sign of international generosity? And where was the social care bill that Johnson had insisted was ready to go nearly two years ago? What about the Northern Ireland veterans bill? Both of which had been promised. Did the government think that she and the rest of the country were fools? On second thoughts, there was no need to answer that.
Still, at least the prime minister had done her a small favour by writing the shortest Queen’s speech since 2016, so she was all done and dusted in under nine minutes. Soon she would be back in the palace for a large pre-lunch sherry. She was going to need it. The MPs traipsed quickly back to the Commons, with Keir Starmer determinedly keeping at least a 2-metre gap behind the prime minister. Not so much out of social distance observance but more to avoid any chance of small talk with Boris. He was almost certainly going to have more than enough of the prime minister bigging up last week’s election results when the Commons reconvened for the debate on the Queen’s speech in the afternoon.
It’s a tradition that the Queen’s speech debate is proposed and seconded by government backbenchers: one whose career is deemed to have peaked, the other who is considered to be a rising star. The speeches are supposed to be witty and entertaining – a tough gig in a near empty chamber – but even so, that message did not appear to have got through to either Shailesh Vara or Katherine Fletcher.
Vara was passionate and engaging when talking about coming to the UK from Uganda in the early 1960s but whenever he tried to make a joke, he died on his feet. Making tired gags, then waiting desperately for laughs that never came. Fletcher merely started by parroting the Tory slogan of Build Back Better before meandering into a contrived segue about football and the enthusiasm of the Team Tory 2019 intake bounding into the woods. She was doing her best but it was all a bit cringe.
After congratulating Vara and Fletcher – it’s another tradition that you don’t point out the speakers have been a bit second-rate – Starmer, who had arrived mob handed with Angela Rayner as if to publicly demonstrate the pair were the best of friends and that their falling out over the weekend had never happened, set about trying to make some kind of sense of the Queen’s speech. Which is easier said than done when you’re up against a prime minister whose defining quality – one that voters even seem to quite admire – is to not keep his promises. So you have to assume that at least half of what Johnson says he is going to do will never happen. The trick is knowing which half is true. A near impossibility as frequently not even Boris knows.
So Starmer played it safe and talked in broad brush strokes. He would judge the government on its record, not its rhetoric. And the initial signs were not hopeful. The UK was on its knees after 10 years of Tory austerity even before the pandemic, and all that Johnson was offering was to paper over the cracks.
How could he talk of “levelling up” when there was no sign of an employment bill of workers’ rights? Where was the social care bill he had said was ready 657 days ago when he became prime minister? And what about the cladding scandal? If the Tories were serious about these things – along with ending conversion practices and online harms – then Labour would work with the government. If not, then the government would have its work cut out.
Except it wouldn’t. Because Boris has a large majority, and on the basis of last week’s elections, one that would only be increased at another general election. So he can do and say what he likes. If he wants voter photo ID then he gets it. Right now he feels invincible. So he more or less ignored everything Starmer had said – he was feeling so good he couldn’t even be bothered to make too much about Labour’s showing in the English elections, apart from making a joke about Rayner’s ambitions – and just reinvented himself as a One Nation Doctor Feelgood who had all the answers to the country’s problems. Anyone who tried to say otherwise was just talking the country down. He wanted everyone to aspire to Lulu Lytle soft furnishings; even if, like him, he couldn’t afford them. He had maxed out his own credit card, he’s maxed out the country’s and he’d like everyone to join him for the ride.
And then, just as he was winning, he screwed up by promising the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, an inquiry into the pandemic by the end of the year. His backbenchers looked horrified. They know when the charge sheet for last year is read out, then people won’t be quite so forgiving as they are now. The vaccine rollout will be seen in the context of the staggering government incompetence over delays in locking down and test and trace. Then it always had to be this way. Because it won’t be the Labour opposition who brings down Johnson in the near future. The person most likely to destroy Boris is Boris himself.