Lords Diary: Baroness Smith of Basildon
The shadow Leader of the Lords reflects on cross-party working, the content (and pagaentry) of the Queen's Speech, and what the next few days may hold
The timing of Prorogation meant I could head home early to Bognor Regis to celebrate my husband’s birthday. Having refused to take part in the previous unlawful ceremony, I didn’t have the same sense of deja vu as those who had been through the nodding and doffing four weeks earlier. No previous prime minister had ever been forced to seek legal advice on the legitimacy of a Prorogation. It’s easy to reach the conclusion that he did so as he knew it was dodgy. Although, no Opposition Leader had refused to attend before, Lib Dem Lords leader Dick Newby and I both knew it was wrong to try to shut Parliament down for so long.
Relaxing at the birthday lunch in a local seafront hostelry, The Navigator, I was surprised to bump into a recent Lords minister who, never having been to Bognor before, was visiting on a whim. After enjoying some workplace gossip, we turned to Brexit and the prime minister – finding ourselves rather in agreement on both. With cross-party working in Westminster also at a peak, in the longer term it could prove to be the opportunity for bridging the divisions now troubling our country.
The pageantry of the Queen’s Speech is usually a highlight of the parliamentary calendar. When the Queen entered the chamber with her Imperial State Crown carried on a cushion, I was reminded of a visit from a young constituent over 20 years ago. As we walked along the route used by the Queen to the Lords chamber, she observed the magnificent murals and remarked: “I could never be Queen”. I asked why not? “Because as I walked along, I’d have to look around at everything and my crown would fall off”.
While it remains a great occasion of state, isn’t it also time that those not directly involved in the ceremony dispense with the red robes? Such attire belongs to a different age and does nothing to reflect the role or work of Parliament’s second chamber.
So what about the content of the Queen’s Speech? The original rationale for Mr Johnson’s initial attempt at Prorogation and his ongoing pleading for a General Election had raised expectations that something pretty special was in the offering. But disappointment, naturally, prevailed. It’s as if the Brexit process has sapped the nation’s energy.
As with most such speeches there is something to unite us all – in this case, the Domestic Abuse Bill (a hangover from Theresa’s May’s time). But otherwise the government’s programme is long on rhetoric and short on ambition, with no mention for some of the major challenges of the day such as housing. And the proposal to only allow those with ID to vote should be treated with extreme caution. While electoral fraud must be tackled, many of those entitled to vote don’t drive or travel abroad and therefore have no driving licence or passport. Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut could disenfranchise millions of our fellow citizens.
This was my third Queen’s Speech as shadow Leader of the Lords – each one with a different prime minister. Our debate follows the same format as the Commons, and before my formal response, we heard two impressive speeches from the Conservative benches. Firstly from ‘the wise sage’ – this time, ex-Chief Whip and Foreign Office Minister, Joyce Anelay. Second, from House of Cards author Michael Dobbs, who seemed as surprised as anyone to be cast as ‘the young up and coming’ peer. I suspect we’ll have to wait a while for his next political novel, as fiction could never be as bizarre as the current reality.
Parliament is a strange place at present, with a real sense of doubt and uncertainty. Indeed, at the time of writing, it is unclear what the next few days hold. The government claims to have a Brexit deal but will it get the support of MPs? What happens if it doesn’t? Will there be an election before the end of the year? Such ongoing certainty helps no-one.
Baroness Smith of Basildon is a Labour peer and shadow Leader of the Lords