Three reasons Nick Clegg was right to call for the ‘cancellation’ of the Queen’s Speech

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.

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19 Comments

  • I suspect that even if Clegg were to call for the queen’s speech to be permanently abolished, followed by the old dear herself, the Lib Dems’ poll numbers would still hover stubbornly around the 18-20% mark they always do.

  • Paul Griffiths 17th Nov '09 - 9:11pm

    I don’t usually do “I agree” comments, but there have been so many detractors I feel the need to even things up a little. Nick’s intervention was inspired, and the worries about dire consequences are wholly unconvincing.

  • Bill le Breton 17th Nov '09 - 9:36pm

    Stephen, it is a gimmick. It may have won a moment or two of coverage, but it’s a hostage to fortune that immediately opens us up to criticism for not supporting important measures.
    You belittle Harman’s attack but her comment illustrates just how this will be used against us, again and again: “Nick Clegg is wrong to say it’s ‘a waste of everyone’s time’ to help carers, make the banks more responsible, and secure Britain’s economic growth and jobs,”
    And White didn’t serve for thirty odd years as a Parliamentary sketch-writer not to know how to do satire.
    I hope I’m wrong, but Duncan, above, poses an immediate problem, does the Leader intend to boycott the speech and if not how exposed do we become trailing along like truant ‘schoolboys’ being led back to class?
    Back in the Commons, replying to a Queen’s Speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats is the hardest job there is. As he rises to speak, four hundred noisy MPs leave the chamber.
    I just don’t think it shows a team thinking things through. It shows an inexperienced comms. operation. Leaving PPCs up and down the country to face the music in their local radio stations.

  • Paul Griffiths 17th Nov '09 - 10:01pm

    It was Mr le Breton’s comments I had in mind when I used the word “unconvincing”. That our political opponents criticise us is hardly surprising. 400 MPs will of course not leave the chamber. And so on.

  • Bill le Breton 17th Nov '09 - 10:25pm

    Sorry Paul, but 95% of Labour MPs and 95% of Tories always get up and go when the ‘two’ set piece speeches finish at the start of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. I was not exaggerating or making something up. Just watch tomorrow. The openning two or so minutes of our Leader’s speech is always drowned out by this mass exodus to the tea room. It is a very hard job at the best of times.
    As for criticism, of course politics is about accusation and rebuttal, but we have put ourselves voluntarily on to hazardous ground and the rebuttal of the charge that we think care for the elderly (for example) is a waste of time will be fraught with difficulty.

  • I’m with those who thought this was an inspired move. Sure, it was a bit of gimmick but one with substance and a serious point behind it.

    The fact that it drew a lot of flak supports that. In my experience, Labour and Conservatives only attack Lib Dems when they are worried about something we have said. Most of the time, they prefer to ignore us.

  • Unthank Road 18th Nov '09 - 11:41am

    As an ex-Lib Dem member, now floating if sympathetic voter, I am exactly the sort of person Nick needs to win back. And this sort of comment is exactly what I’m looking for. Catching a headline but highlighting a key and distinctive Lib Dem want. It beggars belief that people are complaining about the “dire consequences” of this initiative. No doubt had he not been in the papers the complaint would have been of “invisibility”. It is very unusual to be able to get positive uncontroversial coverage. At the end of the day, if you say something of any relevance or interest other people somewhere will disagree with it. Get used to it. Do people want to be fierce warriors for liberal democracy or to return to being those nice people that no one know what they stand for. Think about it

  • A message to Jo – So you have abandoned us for the Green ‘control freaks’ but you feel the need to need to destructively criticise us on a regular basis. If this is what you are about then sod off and talk to them!

  • It’s a bit gimmicky and it looks a bit gimmicky. What Brown is doing looks and feels a lot more gimmicky. I don’t agree that Clegg’s stance will have dire consequences, I also don’t agree that it was a particularly inspired move.

    It did hit the (minor) headlines. It didn’t, on the other hand, resonate strongly with popular opinion. The public now think that Legg and Kelly have done a reasonable job of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Sadly, the Lib Dems never made the mileage they might have made out of the expenses issue, because they didn’t put the right emphasis on cleaning up their own stables first.

    (* – please excuse my obsession with horsey metaphor!)

  • Ruth Bright 18th Nov '09 - 1:11pm

    Clegg did well – I just wish he had said we should abolish the whole charade permanently.

  • To those who think this was gimmicky, Victoria Derbyshire and John Pienaar reckoned that the overwhelming majority of the texts & e-mails to 5 Live after the Queens Speech included a comment along the lines of “why was there nothing about expenses” with many pointing to Nick’s comments. He even made it on to BBC Breakfast to talk about it again this morning – and cleared my main concern which was that there was going to be another Lisbon Treaty-style walkout!

    A good couple of days – now to keep it up for the next six months…

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '09 - 5:14pm

    Constitutional changes need to be properly thought through, not rushed through. So even if Brown were to say “OK, that’s a good idea”, it wouldn’t be really – it’d be a gimmick.

    The reality is that the crisis in British politics today is not primarily about the constitution, so even valuable changes like the introduction of a better electoral system won’t solve it. To put forward these changes as if they are the way of “restoring public trust in our democracy” is to indicate a failure to recognise where the problem really is.

    It is a good indication of why we are languishing in the polls where we are.

  • James Robertson 18th Nov '09 - 6:30pm

    Yes, it’s a gimmick and a calculated one. That of course doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t substance to the argument. I would be very doubtful if Her Majesty’s government is likely to have the time to introduce much of the legislation it claims it wants to, and Clegg is right to ask how best parliament should use its time. Axing the Queen’s Speech, however, will remedy nothing and was clearly designed to make headlines – nothing more.

    Inspired move? No, but hardly likely to have any serious ramifications. At least it assured that the Lib Dems, rather than the Tories, dominated headlines in the run-up to the Queen’s Speech, however “gimmicky” it looked.

  • Paul Griffiths 18th Nov '09 - 6:44pm

    Sorry, Mr le Breton, but you make my point for me. In the context of this argument, I assumed that you were saying that 400 MPs would leave because Nick had called for the Queen’s Speech to be abandoned. Now you tell me this always happens. So your observation was irrelevant. As for rebutting Labour’s charges, Nick was doing a pretty good job on Five Live just a few minutes ago. I expect that PPCs in local radio stations up and down the country will do likewise, and be grateful for the unexpected airtime.

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