David Maddox: Coalition out of cross-party goodwill

Queen Elizabeth II making a speech. Picture: PA
Queen Elizabeth II making a speech. Picture: PA
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IT NORMALLY takes a government at least two elections and the back-end of a second term to run out of ideas, but the Queen’s Speech tomorrow looks set to underline that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has reached that point in just three years.

Once Her Majesty has read out the list of new bills to come before Parliament, it seems likely that the comments afterwards will be more about what is not there than what is proposed.

One casualty is likely to be David Cameron’s election pledge to put into law that 0.7 per cent of UK GDP will be spent on foreign aid. Another could be a key reform on allowing constituents to recall MPs who they believe have not properly represented them. There is even some suggestion that the enabling bill for High Speed Rail 2 could be postponed, though this may be wishful thinking from some Tory MPs.

But why is it that expectations are so low for this Queen’s Speech? It is not as if there is a shortage of ideas between the Tories and the Lib Dems – it is simply that they do not like each other’s ideas. Whether it is Michael Gove’s reforms to schools in England or the Lib Dems’ obsession with constitutional change, the reforms are becoming unpalatable to the two sides.

As this column has noted before, calling this government a coalition is not entirely accurate. What actually exists is a “confidence” and “supply arrangement” on an economic policy, with added ministerial cars and salaries to keep the Lib Dem leadership sweet.

It is certainly a long way from their first Queen’s Speech in 2010. This seemed to suggest a new, reforming centre ground in British politics. It contained a massive overhaul of welfare, a new economic policy, the introduction of free schools in England, reform of the NHS in England and constitutional changes including handing income tax powers to Holyrood.

It is quite possible that there were so many big ideas up front that the coalition has done almost all it could within the bounds of two parties working together. One of the few major items in the Queen’s Speech tomorrow will be pension reform – Tory Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Lib Dem pensions minister Steve Webb have one of the last good cross-party working relationships.

The manifesto unveiled by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the Downing Street rose garden quickly became choked with weeds. The battles which emerged, particularly reform of the House of Lords and NHS changes, have left the two parties almost entirely lacking in trust for one another.

But there is another reason for the expected paltry offering. The Tories are rattled by the rise of Ukip who are taking many disaffected anti-modernisation Conservatives with them. This means that Mr Cameron’s Big Society, modernising agenda is being shelved in an effort to win back some of those who walked away unhappy with issues such as gay marriage and spending on aid, not defence.