THERESA May has torn up much of the Conservative manifesto to deliver a legislative timetable for the next two years dominate by preparations for Brexit.
Of 27 Bills and draft bills unveiled in her first Queen’s Speech, eight are devoted to the complex process of withdrawal from the EU, including a Repeal Bill to overturn the 1972 Act which took Britain into the European Economic Community and separate Bills on customs, trade, immigration, fisheries, agriculture, nuclear safeguards and the international sanctions regime.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire and a string of terror attacks, the Prime Minister also announced plans for a Civil Disaster Reaction Taskforce and a new Commission for Countering Extremism, as well as a review of counter-terror strategy and the creation of an independent public advocate to act on behalf of bereaved families.
But flagship manifesto policies which find no place in the Conservative agenda included the scrapping of universal free school lunches, means-testing of the winter fuel payment, an energy price cap and the reform of social care funding which opponents branded a ‘dementia tax’.
The Queen also made no mention of any state visit by Donald Trump, fuelling speculation that the planned trip is set to be ditched after the US President reportedly said he did not want to come to the UK if there was a risk of being greeted by protests.
Following her failure to reach agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party on a deal to shore up her minority administration, Mrs May is the first PM in decades to be faced by doubts over whether she can get her legislative programme through Parliament.
Conservative sources said talks with the DUP were ‘ongoing’ after the Northern Irish party warned its support cannot be ‘taken for granted’. But First Secretary of State Damian Green acknowledged that it may not be possible to reach a deal in time for the Commons vote on the Queen’s Speech package on June 29.
Having called a snap election in the hope of securing an increased majority to deliver Brexit in a ‘strong and stable’ way, Mrs May acknowledged that the outcome was ‘not the one I hoped for’.
‘This Government will respond with humility and resolve to the message the electorate sent,’ she promised.
‘We will work hard every day to gain the trust and confidence of the British people, making their priorities our priorities.’
Also contained in the Queen’s Speech are Bills to extend the HS2 high-speed rail link to Crewe, permit the development of driverless cars and commercial satellites, cut whiplash insurance claims, protect victims of domestic abuse and ban letting fees for private rented homes.
After the negative response to plans in the Tory manifesto to make pensioners pay for social care by selling their homes after they died, the Speech promised only a consultation on proposals which will be brought forward to improve social care.
It also said ministers would ‘bring forward measures to help tackle unfair practices in the energy market’, but made no mention of the cap promised during the election campaign.
The State Opening of Parliament, delayed by two days because of confusion caused by the inconclusive result of the June 8 election, took place without some of the traditional ceremony, with the Queen arriving by car rather than carriage and doing without her state crown.
Centrepiece of Mrs May’s programme is the Repeal Bill which will transfer relevant EU laws on to the UK statute book at the moment of Brexit in March 2019, with the aim of delivering ‘a smooth and orderly transition’ and avoiding uncertainty for businesses and individuals.
The Bill creates powers for Parliament to use secondary legislation to make what are expected to be a huge number of technical amendments to EU rules and regulations to ensure they continue to operate appropriately within UK law. It will pave the way for Parliament eventually to repeal or amend unwanted EU laws after Brexit.
Separate Bills will aim to ensure the UK has its own customs regime on exit and can operate an independent trade policy with Europe.
An Immigration Bill abolishes EU free movement rules after Brexit and provides a framework for the UK to control migration while attracting ‘the brightest and the best’.
A Fisheries Bill promises to restore UK responsibility over access and management of its waters, and an Agriculture Bill states the Government will introduce an ‘effective’ system to deliver stability to farmers who lose EU support.
Other Brexit Bills create a new regime for nuclear regulation and safeguards after the UK quits Euratom, and enable Britain to make its own decisions on international sanctions.
Launching her agenda just 13 days after the disastrous election robbed her of the majority needed to be sure of delivering it, Mrs May said her legislative programme is ‘about delivering a Brexit deal that works for all parts of the UK while building a stronger, fairer country by strengthening our economy, tackling injustice and promoting opportunity and aspiration’.
In an apparent sign of recognition that she must seek a broad consensus for any Brexit deal, she said getting EU withdrawal right will mean securing ‘a deal which delivers the result of last year’s referendum and does so in a way that commands maximum public support’.
The Speech confirmed plans for a public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
And Mrs May said she would also take forward measures to introduce an independent advocate for all public disasters to support those affected and help them at inquests.
A new strategy for resilience in major disasters could include a Civil Disaster Reaction Taskforce to help at times of emergency.
Warning of an ‘unprecedented’ threat from terrorism in the wake of attacks at Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge, Mrs May announced a review of counter-terrorism strategy to make sure police and security services have ‘all the powers they need to protect our country’.
The new Commission for Countering Extremism will be given the task of supporting the Government in ‘stamping out extremist ideology in all its forms’.
The tally of 27 bills and draft bills is fairly typical for a Queen’s Speech and more than this has been seen in some recent years.
The legislative frenzy of Tony Blair’s administration saw bills peak at 45 in 2005, but numbers have reduced since then, dipping as low as 11 in the final year of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2014, when there was little the two sides could agree on. The Conservative-majority government of David Cameron offered 27 in 2015 and 24 in 2016.
However, the fact that this programme is due to cover two years, rather than the usual one, cannot help but give the impression of a relatively lightweight package.
Suspicions that the demands of Brexit and the lack of an overall majority have forced the Government to cut back on its activities in other areas are amplified by the fact that eight of the bills are specifically targeted at delivering EU withdrawal and several of the others cover only relatively minor reforms.