by Stephen Tall on November 17, 2009
When I woke up yesterday morning to news reports that Nick Clegg had called for the Queen’s Speech to be cancelled – because with limited time before the general election it would be far better to use the time focusing on reforming Parliament ready for the new batch of MPs – I was impressed.
First, because it was one of the leading news items, and for a Lib Dem leader to be that high up the running order in peace-time is no mean achievement. Secondly, because he was focusing public and media attention once again on a key liberal issue: restoring public trust in our democracy. And, thirdly, because it showed some welcome media savvy in the party to spot that the Queen’s Speech would be the political issue of the week, and for the Lib Dems to have something punchy, memorable and newsworthy to say about it right at the outset.
As it was, even when Harriet Harman (inevitably) rejected Nick’s call it gave yet further publicity to his original point: that this is Parliament’s last chance to reform itself in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, and that the Government shouldn’t flunk the chance.
A few commenters on yesterday’s LDV piece, though, were more snippy about Nick’s call, branding it a gimmick that would backfire. I disagree. I thought The Guardian’s Michael White made the point very well:
Nick Clegg, who shares Tony Blair’s impatience with Britain’s more flamboyant constitutional traditions, is so cross about the prospect of a bogus Queen’s speech programme from Gordon Brown that he has been urging ministers to cancel Wednesday’s pageant and give the 83-year-old monarch the day off.
It can’t happen, of course, as the Lib Dem leader knows perfectly well. His underlying purpose is more substantive. Most of the dozen or so bills the Queen will announce – reannounce in many instances – are doomed not to be passed into law by general election day. So why not devote the 70 fag-end days of parliament to a package of constitutional reforms that will restore the tattered prestige of politics?
Brown is unlikely to be so high-minded, not least because Clegg’s lunchbox is full of familiar Lib Dem sandwiches: fixed-term, four-year parliaments, proportional voting, elected Lords, sackable MPs. Cautious Brown will go no further than a promised referendum after an election.
Of course Nick doesn’t actually think the Government will really scrap the Queen’s Speech. But it’s a mistake to dismiss his call as ’spin’. If you want traditional tribal knocking-copy, you need look no further than David Cameron’s flimsy response in The Times.
Nick’s point was a serious one. If you know you’re up against a tight deadline, you focus on those things which are most important and most achievable in the time remaining. Nick’s right to identify restoring democratic trust as the key issue which meets those criteria, and right to find a way of packaging that which grabs some media attention.