In explaining his deeply controversial decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, the prime minister argued that this was necessary for the government to hold a Queen’s Speech and bring forward a new “bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda.”
Even setting aside the more likely reasons for prorogation – stalling MPs who are trying to thwart a no-deal Brexit – Johnson’s claims about what a new session can achieve do not reflect the reality of his government’s situation in the Commons.
There are good reasons to start a new parliamentary session. Johnson is not completely wrong to say, as he did in his letter to MPs, that recent government bills “have at times seemed more about filling time in the Commons and Lords.” But the reason why this session has lasted so long is partly because the previous government knew that ending the session and bringing a new Queen’s Speech would not solve the impasse in Parliament – and could create bigger problems.
After MPs voted to reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the government found itself between a rock and a hard place. With the Speaker of the Commons having ruled that the government’s Brexit deal could not be brought back in the same parliamentary session, starting a new session would allow the government to bring the deal back to Parliament.
But starting a new session would require a new Queen’s Speech – with the risk that the government’s tiny minority could allow MPs to hijack the speech for their own agenda on Brexit and other policies.
That prospect saw Theresa May keep the previous parliamentary session going, even though the fragile parliamentary arithmetic meant that her government did not fill Parliament’s time with much major business. Instead it scheduled general debates and more backbench time, at the same time – reflecting the government’s approach to legislation in this session – keeping its non-Brexit bills focused on often very narrow policy areas like the Circus Animals Act.
Of course, these bills were still important on their own terms. And in the case of legislation like the Domestic Abuse Bill – which many MPs are concerned may now be dropped – these were bills that had the potential for real impact on people’s lives. But, nonetheless, it was not the kind of major reforming legislation expected of a government in the first session of a new Parliament – because the government simply didn’t have the political capital.
Since Boris Johnson became prime minister, the new government’s calculation has changed. Rather than keep the session running to avoid holding a Queen’s Speech, it has clearly decided that the risk is worth taking in order to end the session. The new government will now have the chance to set out its own domestic agenda. But the parliamentary arithmetic, by which the government can put those policies into legislation, will not change
The government’s effective working majority in the Commons is fragile. It stands at just three, while some Conservative MPs are deeply angered by the decision to prorogue. Starting a new session also means the government will have to review its confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party. So, the prospects for the government to pass any major bills outside of Brexit will continue to be limited.
Nor can the government even be certain that it will pass the Queen’s Speech. It is possible that MPs will table difficult amendments – and that MPs could ultimately vote it down. Although a politically damaging defeat on the Queen’s Speech would not automatically lead to an election under the Fixed-terms Parliament Act, it has historically been seen as a confidence matter and could possibly precipitate a formal no confidence vote.
It is possible that the government could choose to bring forward bills on issues which either MPs can unite around or which have strong public support. But the fraught political climate, coupled with its tiny majority, makes it difficult to see how the government could hope to make progress on anything other than the most uncontroversial legislation – a far cry from Johnson’s “bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda.”
So what is the real purpose of a Queen’s Speech which unveils a raft of measures that government does not have the numbers to deliver? Unless the maths changes, the government will be constrained in what it can get through Parliament. The prime minister knows this – and will also know that only way to shift the arithmetic in Parliament is to call a general election. A Queen’s Speech is a good shop window to set out a menu of policies – and then ask the country, rather than Parliament, for their votes.