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Have we lost the plot by moving the State Opening to summer?

By Mary Dejevsky

Maybe it's a sign of age (mine), but the State Opening of Parliament seems ever more discordant with each passing year – and I am not talking about any clashes of theme that might derive from a coalition government.

The fixed parliament introduced by this government (a good thing, a modern thing) places the State Opening, inevitably, in early summer. Yet it feels wrong.

In the first place, the link between the State Opening and the Gunpowder Plot has been lost. The sights and smells of late autumn all seemed to complement the Queen's carriage procession to parliament in a way that early summer does not. The associations may be generational, but they are strong for all that.

Second, in a more practical vein, there is the awkward fact that almost as soon as parliament has been ceremonially opened, it will close again.

MPs will sit for just six weeks before rising for the long summer recess, which will be followed by the party conference season. Just as the year for many people is winding down, with exams over, schools and colleges breaking up, families looking forward to holidays, parliament is starting up. Its timetable is out of kilter.

Then, oh dear, oh dear, there is the language of the Queen's Speech. This year, what was striking was not just the mismatch between the wooden political script the Queen had to read and the register we associate with her own utterances, such as the Christmas message.

This is a mismatch that seems to increase every year. Is there really no one capable of translating the government's legislative programme into a discourse that sounds, well, a bit more queenly?

This time, though, the grotesquely wooden language was compounded by the dissonance in content. What in the world was the Queen to make of a programme that pledged to keep mortgage rates low? If you were looking for symbols of the gulf that separates her life from ours, you could hardly do better than the mortgage rate.

In a week that produced the unexpected abdication of the King of Spain, triggering calls for a referendum on the future of the monarchy there, the prospects for the monarchy here looked secure. But the tonal clashes at this year's State Opening raised questions about how long this particular ritual can last.

The coalition, by comparison, looked surprising solid. In its first year, scarcely a month went by without someone forecasting its early end. Yet it now seems clear that the coalition will complete its term.

It also seems, paradoxically, that the two parties have preserved their separate identities more successfully than some parties in government by themselves. (Consider France, where the unpopularity of the Socialist government and two years of perpetual in-fighting in the centre-right Opposition UMP were factors, at least, in the National Front's electoral success).

The Queen's Speech, the last to be written by this coalition government, was a model of how two-party government should work.

You could see the joins and the compromises, but that should have been more reassuring than disconcerting. Once you dropped your objections to the ugly language, there really was something there. Even some of those who had confidently insisted that the government had run out of ideas had generally to accept that the description 'zombie government' was an exaggeration.

In terms of legislation, what stood out from the Queen's Speech was how much it reflected the combination of two parties, rather than the will of one. It would have been easy for David Cameron to have cited the Liberal Democrats' poor electoral showing as a pretext for reducing their contribution to determining policy.

From the opening paragraph, where "strengthening the economy" was coupled with bringing a "fairer society", however, there could be no doubt that this was a collaborative programme. Cameron has his married couples' tax allowance; Clegg has his free school meals.

Cameron has more deregulation, a pledge of lower taxes, and shale gas.

Clegg has help for small businesses, zero-carbon homes, garden cities and a charge for those plastic bags.

Now, there may be some astute political thinking here: the more concessions Cameron makes to the Liberal Democrats in the last year of the coalition, the more convincingly he can argue that he needs an overall majority to do what he, and true Conservatives, really want to do.

But this cuts both ways. The voting public may prefer Conservative-lite, or not at all.

Britain has just short of a year to decide.

Belfast Telegraph


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