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The election results, the Queen’s Speech and what it may mean….

Huw EvansSpare a thought for the challenge facing the Government. Bruising local election results, the delicate stability of the EU economy threatened by the French and Greek results and the worst two month spell of its two years in office having finally provoked the Westminster media consensus into one of its deeply negative phases. Faced with the need for a definitive reset, it is now forced to rely on the Queen’s Speech.

There are many reasons why the Queen’s Speech is completely unsuitable for such a task and not just that the text can’t be tweaked over the last 72 hours because the goat skin parchment from which the monarch reads needs three days for the ink to dry. It does not work as a re-launch because in a Government’s mid-term, it can only ever be a partial list of priorities put together, in part, to ensure Parliament has enough to do over the next year. Among the gems in today’s list of 19 bills, we have the Croatia Accession Bill, the Draft Local Audit Bill and the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill yet no mention of the flagship policies of deficit reduction, welfare reform and schools reform on which the Conservative part of the Coalition Government is likely to want to fight the next election – they were all in the Queen’s Speech of two years ago so cannot be part of the narrative today.

This matters for the Government because it is currently struggling to get traction for its priorities, its achievements and its ambitions. Whereas the US president’s State of the Union address allows a weaving together of the administration’s overall objectives, its immediate plans and its world view, the Queen’s Speech offers a much more limited canvas – sorry parchment – on which to draw. So what else can the Government do to learn the right lessons from recent events and ensure today is the beginning of a process of renewal?

First it needs to learn the right lessons from the electoral events of the last week. Voters are unsurprisingly grumpy and in some cases distressed at the ongoing consequences of the financial crash and the economic downturn and austerity programmes that have followed. But it does not follow that the electorates of the UK, France and Greece are sending a simple message. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy achieved 48% of the vote with a campaign that stressed the need for continued fiscal discipline and he could easily have won if his personal ratings had not been so bad. The Greek economy and political culture is so far removed from our own that it is very unwise to draw close comparisons. And in the UK, losing lots of council seats in mid-term on a 32% average turnout should worry the Government less than its slide in poll ratings on economic competence.  Mid-term council losses are standard in our political life, but economic poll ratings can be difficult to reverse.

If I were advising the UK governing parties, I would draw two clear conclusions. Firstly, the voters need constant reminding of why the deficit must be tackled. This seems to have dropped off the script far too easily for government ministers for a policy that is supposed to be the central unifying mission of the coalition. Without constant reminder and reinforcement, deficit deniers get to pretend that the country never has to pay a price for its level of debt. Nor is this a zero sum game; the Government can still talk about growth too and should do.

Secondly, the Liberal Democrats would be advised to drop its ‘differentiation’ strategy. As its appalling results last week showed, it is not working in shoring up its vote and it comes at a cost of the Coalition Government looking disunited and, at times, shambolic.  One of this Government’s strongest cards is strong public approval of the principle of two parties working together for the national good. This is still in the Lib Dems’ interests, far more so than chaotic Budgets undermined by leakage and constant sniping at the Tory backbenches. Being associated with a disunited, dysfunctional government is far more toxic to the Liberal Democrats’ brand of ‘not being like the other parties’ than having to live with some policies it would not endorse if not in a coalition.

The way forward for this Coalition lies in getting the three ‘Cs’ right; competence, content and communication. This is not rocket science; these are the basic human needs that people require from business and public services as well as government.  Ministers often look to the private sector for inspiration and invariably discover that business, like politics, is about making a good fist of delivering the right content & products, in a competent manner and well communicated with your customers.

Competence is the first challenge here. Relatively inexperienced ministers, advisors and civil servants have struggled with the immense challenges of governing in an era of austerity and growing EU power. More older hands are needed on the deck, especially at the centre.

Content is stronger; the Government is focused on major reforms of welfare, schools and the police service which will provide it with a distinctive platform in 2015. But too often it is distracted by passing issues rather than focusing on how to constantly renew and reinforce its reform programme.

Communication is the least important of the three; the best spin doctors can’t deliver great coverage if competence and content are missing as Gordon Brown’s Premiership proved definitively. But the Government’s communication strategy should be much better prepared and stress-tested than it seems at the moment and ministers need to spend more time delivering it straight and repeating themselves endlessly through as many forums as they can.

So the Queen’s Speech is a milestone in this Government’s journey, not a fork in the road. This is the right time to take stock and try and reset its agenda and its way of operating. But the pageantry and showcasing of today are a sideshow to the real challenges facing the Government.


Last updated 29/06/2016