Brexit Dominates May's Program as Manifesto Pledges Ditched

  • Queen outlines government’s program in speech to Parliament
  • Program shorn of bills on executive pay, social care, schools

Queen Elizabeth II outlines the U.K. government's priorities for Brexit negotiations in an address to the House of Lords. (Source: Bloomberg)

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Brexit dominates U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s program for the next two years, with the government planning eight new laws to ease Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

In a ceremony to mark the formal opening of Parliament in London on Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth II outlined the legislative program the House of Commons will consider in its two-year term. Bills on topics from immigration and trade to fisheries and agriculture will supplement the government’s main Brexit initiative, a repeal bill designed to transpose all current EU legislation into British law, to take effect once Brexit has been completed in 2019. 

“My government’s priority is to secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union,” the queen said in a ceremony stripped of much of its usual pageantry. “My ministers are committed to working with Parliament, the devolved administrations, businesses and others to build the widest possible consensus on the country’s future outside the European Union.”

The government program underscores May’s fragility after she miscalculated in calling a snap general election that stripped her Conservatives of their majority and left her dependent on the votes of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, though no final deal between the parties has yet been announced. With a vote next Wednesday on the content of the Queen’s Speech, and lacking enough lawmakers in her own party to secure its passage, the premier has little choice but to stick to measures she feels can win support across parties.

“We will do what is in the national interest and we will work with anyone in any party that is prepared to do the same,” May told lawmakers as they started six days of debate on the speech.

While governments typically give advance notice of about 20 new laws a year in a Queen’s Speech, the government on Wednesday announced just 27 new bills to fill a two-year period. That’s a reflection of May’s precarious position in Parliament, beholden as she is to the whims of the DUP as well as lawmakers in her own party to advance her program. May also lacks a majority in the upper, unelected House of Lords.

“Weak and Wobbly”

In a sign of how the election result has undermined May’s authority, one Labour lawmaker, Kevin Brennan, addressed her in Parliament as the “interim” prime minister.

The challenge she faces in getting her measures through Parliament was underlined by Rebecca Long Bailey, the business spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party. In a BBC television interview, she said Labour plans a “whole range of amendments” to the government’s proposals, including on the economy, care for the elderly and industrial strategy. An invigorated Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, told lawmakers he’ll try to thwart unpopular Tory measures.

“We will use every opportunity to vote down government policies that failed to win public support and we will use every opportunity to win support for our program,” Corbyn said. “We are ready to offer real strong and stable leadership in the interests of the many, not the few. And we will test this government’s Brexit strategy, and what legislation comes forward, against that standard.”

Scottish Hurdle

In another sign of potential disruption, May conceded that the Scottish Parliament may need to give consent to the so-called Repeal Bill that will repeal EU laws and replicate them in U.K. legislation. The Scottish National Party and Scottish Greens, which oppose Brexit, have a majority in the semi-autonomous assembly.

With no majority and no mandate for the hard Brexit that she wanted, May also faces a series of battles to advance her EU withdrawal plans through Parliament. Those who campaigned last year to stay in the EU -- including some of her own ministers -- could fight proposals to pull Britain out of the bloc’s customs union and set up its own regime, while curbs on immigration are likely to be another flash-point: May has prioritized bringing the numbers down, while Remainers say the needs of businesses to attract international talent and fill skills gaps should be prioritized.

Watch More: Queen Elizabeth II’s speech in full (9 minutes).

Still, there are enough euro-skeptics in Parliament who prefer May’s original vision for Brexit and could still complicate matters for her if she does soften her strategy.

As well as the Repeal Bill, the planned pieces of Brexit legislation outlined in Wednesday’s speech are:

  • Customs Bill -- to set up a standalone U.K. customs regime.
  • Trade Bill -- to allow Britain to operate its own trade policy after Brexit.
  • Immigration Bill -- to allow the government to control the number of people entering the country from the EU.
  • Fisheries Bill -- to give the U.K. responsibility for allowing access to fisheries in its own waters
  • Agriculture Bill -- to establish a system to support farmers who face losing EU subsidies
  • Nuclear Safeguards Bill -- to give the industry security as Britain pulls out of Euratom, which governs nuclear cooperation and the transport of radioactive materials
  • International Sanctions Bill -- to give Britain the framework to implement international sanctions

Absent from the legislative program are flagship manifesto promises on selective schools and on paying for care for people with dementia and other ailments that lack cross-party support. The care issue in particular bogged down the Tories’ election campaign, with the premier forced into a U-turn just days after advancing a policy to fund the costs from a person’s estate when they die, with only 100,000 pounds ($126,000) protected. After a backlash from her own lawmakers and from opposition parties who branded it a “dementia tax,” she said costs would be capped.

Instead, the non-Brexit legislative program is taken up by measures that are likely to garner cross-party support, with bills to curb domestic violence and strengthen tenants’ rights, as well as measures to allow space rockets to be launched from British soil, promote electric cars and invest in high-speed rail. There was no mention of a plan for a parliamentary vote to end a ban on hunting foxes with dogs.

“Having dropped everything from the dementia tax to fox hunting. I assume the only reason they have proposed a Space Bill is so they can shoot their manifesto into space and pretend it never existed,” said Tim Farron, the outgoing leader of the Tories’ former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

Corporate Governance

Also absent was any mention of moving forward with government proposals on executive pay and the structure of boards that riled businesses last year. May’s office said it remains committed to reforming corporate governance.

“This welcome change in tone needs to be backed by clarity and action now,” said Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the main business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry. “Firms will expect all politicians to put pragmatism before politics, starting with Brexit.”

After a series of terrorist attacks in London and Manchester this year, May also announced she’ll review counter-terrorism strategy to ensure police and the security services have the powers they need, as well as set up a new commission to counter extremism. And after missteps this month following a devastating and deadly fire in a west London tower block, May apologized in Parliament for failings in the government response. She said the government will set up an independent public advocate to act for bereaved families following public disasters.

The premier’s first test is winning votes on June 28 and 29 on the contents of the speech itself. May can probably count on her own lawmakers next week, and though the DUP may try to keep negotiations with the Tories going for as long as possible to squeeze out extra spending pledges, it is also likely to fall into line.

— With assistance by Charlotte Ryan, and Thomas Penny

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