Nikki da Costa: The Prime Minister must select the date of the next Queen's Speech carefully
The next Queen’s Speech – originally expected in June – is likely to be delayed until at least the autumn as the Brexit stalemate drags on. Nikki da Costa looks at the Prime Minister’s options
Picking a date for the Queen’s Speech isn’t just a matter of co-ordinating HM the Queen’s diary with the grid: it should be about maximising the benefits from rebooting the legislative agenda and that requires thought. Thus, while the Prime Minister has many options when it comes to the next Queen’s Speech there are political and logistical constraints.
Luckily any No.10 operation will be assisted, as I was, by excellent officials and advisers both in the Whips Office and in Cabinet Office.
While there has been a pattern of yearly sessions, there are no rules. Sessions can be of indeterminate length, and there is no requirement to end the session by a particular date. The government can also, if necessary and as now, play for time and introduce legislation not originally mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. The ability to do so is covered by the catch-all phrase at the end of the Royal Address that ‘other measures will be laid before’ parliament. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is one such item.
This flexibility is highly valued, and in terms of third-party dependencies the choice of a date is only constrained by the availability of the Queen. Sensitivity to Ascot and other annual commitments is advisable if the government would like Her Majesty to open the session in person. As short notice is likely to be poorly received by the Palace, it can be helpful to have a few dates ‘pencilled in’ well in advance.
When choosing a date, political advisers should also have an eye to the pattern of other set-piece events such as party conference, the Budget, and the Spending Review. Ideally these would be spaced out to provide a rhythm to the year and maximise the benefit of the increased media attention on the government agenda. However, a new Prime Minister could relish the impact of a ‘big bang’ approach.
A strategic approach will also focus on how to use all the time up until the next General Election in a way that benefits the governing party. Politically, what pattern of sessions will provide the greatest electoral advantage? No government wants to end up with a dog-end final session too short to make progress on any substantive legislation before MPs clamour to return to their constituencies to campaign.
Good advice I received was to forget about the first quarter of 2022 and work back from there. If a Queen’s Speech is delayed until late autumn – and in ‘civil servant’ parlance this means by Christmas – at best the government will have 24 months left for legislation. Does that lend itself to a year-long session, followed by a final session of 15 months, or a further single extended session all the way to General Election with no further reboot? Politically, two sessions are likely to be more desirable, but legislatively it’s going to require a very focussed approach.
Finally, realism is needed as to how quickly Whitehall can be ready. Legislation takes time to draft: ideally six months to a year, including policy work. It’s public knowledge that we kicked off work on the current Queen’s Speech last June – a year to provide clarity to departments and support good drafting – although the process has become bogged down.
A new Prime Minister will not have that luxury. If they do not wish to delay a Queen’s Speech into 2020 they’ll need to choose which items they want to still take forward and what of their own agenda they may have to announce but only introduce in four to six months’ time when it is ready.
It would of course be an option to delay the Queen’s Speech – Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016 but continued to pursue the agenda laid out under David Cameron and the Queen’s Speech earlier that year – but with nothing left on the books, it’s going to look pretty ragged.
The Prime Minister has a lot of freedom, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to get it right. If there is a new Prime Minister before the next Queen’s Speech, it will be best to focus on a handful of key measures, and good expectation management.
Nikki da Costa is the former Director of Legislative Affairs at Number Ten and a Senior Counsel the Cicero Group