One day and two leaders worlds apart
BATTERED and bruised by the 10p tax-band battle, woeful poll ratings and questions about his personality, Gordon Brown gave no obvious sign of pleasure as he rose to tell the Commons about the government's plans for the future.
Here was the opportunity, in his draft Queen's Speech, to give people a compelling reason to re-elect a Labour government that looks increasingly past its sell-by date.
But Mr Brown, never the showman, was unable to disguise the lack of substance in what he was announcing.
There was no "big idea", or even many new ones. Only two initiatives – on the government buying up unoccupied new homes, and providing savings accounts for people on low incomes – were fresh.
So, he put his head down and rattled through his speech.
Nobody was fooled.
"Today's Queen's Speech is just another attempt to save the Prime Minister's skin," sneered Tory leader David Cameron. "This has nothing to do with the long-term needs of the country and everything to do with the short-term survival of the Prime Minister."
Mr Brown was fulfilling his promise, made when he entered No 10 last June, to consult the public on proposals for the annual Queen's Speech prior to it being formally unveiled in November. This was a Queen's Speech without the pomp and circumstance – without the Queen.
Mr Brown outlined 18 bills, 14 of which will apply in whole or in part to Scotland, designed to deliver "a more prosperous Britain and a fairer Britain".
There was so much repair work to do, he contended, it was almost as if Labour had spent the past 11 years in opposition.
What he was really doing, of course, was attempting to dig himself, and his government, out of a massive hole. The aim was to offer the British people "substance" over the "salesmen" of the Tory party. But he could have done with a bit of the salesman's chat.
The immediate priority was "to help family finances". Eight million people will become eligible for a new savings scheme that will match each 1 saved with a government "contribution".
Workers will be given the right to request time off to attend a training course, and there will be extra pressure placed on the workshy. "Those that can work, should work," Mr Brown declared.
Salmond's statement underlines disarray of opposition, writes DAVID MADDOX
ALEX Salmond rose to his feet yesterday with the air of man who knows he is at the height of his political powers while the opposition flounders.
His statement to MSPs on Scotland's future was largely a piece of self-congratulation on the council-tax freeze, and the abolition of bridge tolls and the graduate endowment.
It was delivered to appreciative and regular applause from Nationalist MSPs and somewhat impotent howls of derision from Labour.
There were three announcements – an annual 2 million Saltire Prize to award innovation, making Stirling University a university of sporting excellence (an idea borrowed from Labour) and publishing all government documents before they are requested under Freedom of Information laws.
The disarray within Scottish Labour was summed up in the way most of the party's MSPs rushed in to the chamber late, after Mr Salmond had got to his feet.
Wendy Alexander, who has seen her party spend the past 11 days doing contortions on an independence referendum, started the session shrunk back in her chair, looking as though she hoped nobody would notice she was there.
Later, however, she tried to attack Mr Salmond's announcement, declaring: "This isn't just lightweight, it's fly-weight.
Not only is there is no early referendum bill, there is precious little else."
Referring to an editorial in The Scotsman, Mr Salmond replied: "One of (our] great national newspapers described Wendy Alexander as the Olga Korbut of Scottish politics, thanks to her political gymnastics. Labour in Scotland have more in common with Ronnie Corbett."
Annabel Goldie, the Tory leader, urged the SNP to reverse decisions on increasing home detention curfews, allowing the private sector into the NHS and opposing the mutualisation of Scottish Water.
Nicol Stephen, leader of the Lib Dems, took up what, until 11 days ago, was Labour's mantra on the SNP's "year of broken promises". "Students, housing, class sizes, school buildings. The list goes on," he said.
At the end of the proceedings, Labour's George Foulkes described Mr Salmond's statement as "an insult to parliament", in a point of order.
However, by that point, everyone was leaving.
A speech full of talk, but no action
IT WAS meant to provide focus to a directionless government and a compelling argument for a fourth term of power.
But the draft Queen's speech delivered yesterday by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, merely seemed to reinforce the perception that his administration has run out of ideas.
First came the insistence that, at a time of rising food and fuel bills, the tight finances of British families were the government's primary concern.
But there was nothing inside the 84-page "draft legislative programme" to reflect the concerns of the Bank of England governor that the UK economy was heading for recession.
To be fair, the previous day had been dominated by the repair job on the 10p tax fiasco and the handing of 120 to most UK taxpayers.
Yesterday's document was to be all about the "vision thing", but close reading revealed it to be a familiar New Labour rehash – nine of the 18 Bills had been published already, or were due for imminent release.
The idea of buying up unoccupied new houses was novel – but only 200 million is to be allocated. Based on the average UK house price, this may buy fewer than 1,000 properties.
Other bills appeared little more than padding. One referred to the United Nations adopting a red crystal symbol. Another required airports to draw up security plans – as if they have not already done so. So much for regaining the agenda.
BILLS IN DETAIL
EIGHT of the 18 bills announced by the UK government yesterday will apply in full in Scotland, and six others will have some effect.
The Banking Reform Bill, Saving Gateway Bill and Citizenship and Immigration Bill will be among those having the greatest impact north of the Border, according to the Scotland Office.
The banking bill will aim to prevent a repeat of the Northern Rock fiasco by allowing greater sharing of information on banks in difficulty, and improving the Bank of England's powers to intervene. There will also be enhanced protection for people holding Scottish banknotes should the issuing banks run into trouble.
The saving bill will establish a national saving scheme for people receiving benefits or tax credits – around eight million Britons. From 2010, the government will match their savings – possibly pound for pound – though the first withdrawals cannot be made until 2012.
The citizenship bill will expand the theme of "earned citizenship" for UK incomers and build upon the system, copied from Australia, of applicants having to amass points to enter the UK, based on their skills or ability to speak English.
A marine bill, first announced in March, will introduce a planning system for UK waters and create powers to designate marine conservation zones to prohibit activities damaging to the seas' natural heritage.
A welfare bill will aim to get people off benefits and into work.
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