The response to the Gracious Speech is an enjoyably ragged parliamentary occasion, full of ancient traditions and even more ancient jokes. Frank Dobson proposed the Humble Address and spoke with pride about his Holborn constituency where the anti-Apartheid movement had been born. He met Mandela briefly after his release from prison and encountered him a second time when, as newly elected President of South Africa, he addressed a joint meeting of parliament. Mandela tapped Dobson on the shoulder. ‘You do remember who I am, don’t you?’
Seconding the Humble Address, Emily Thornberry announced how pleased she was to have been abused by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail. It proved she’d arrived. He called her ‘scrumptious’ and ‘very county’. But Ms Thorberry corrected that impression and recalled her family’s eviction from her Guildford home by ‘bowler-hatted bailiffs’. Her single mother struggled on benefits and later became a Labour councillor – unusual in Tory Guildford – but the Conservatives were good enough to name a street in her honour. ‘Thornberry Way runs from the sewage works to the dump,’ she smiled. ‘Thanks.’
Over to Dave. He called the Gracious Speech ‘a Labour press release on Palace parchment.’ It was full of glaring omissions. No immigration bill. No sign of the promised regulations ‘to transform the culture of Whitehall’. And no mention of the NHS. This led Dave to deduce that ‘the NHS is not a priority for this government.’ That made Labour MPs very cross indeed. One leapt up and dared Dave to match Labour’s guarantee that cancer patients will be able to see a consultant within two weeks. Dave wriggled out of that one without quite making the pledge. He was then asked how he planned to maintain the army’s strength. This was bizarre. Labour MPs were acting as if Dave were installed in Number 10 and he had popped down to the house for his first PMQs.
Dave moved to Gordon’s record on employment. ‘The only jobs he has created are for his cronies,’ he jeered. He poured scorn on the ‘government of all the talents’, many of whom have taken ermine and moved to the Lords. ‘Never have so many stoats died in vain. Forget about jobs for the boys, it’s stoats for the goats.’
The most embarrassing omission in the government’s programme was the Kelly report. Cameron challenged Brown directly. ‘If he brings forward legislation to implement the rest of Kelly we will help take it through parliament.’ Brown stared down and pretended to fiddle with his papers. Dave tried again. ‘No one will understand why this vital work isn’t being done in this parliament.’ Would the Prime Minister accept Tory help? Afraid not. Gordon suddenly discovered he had something of vital importance to whisper into Batty Hattie’s ear. Dave swung a spotlight onto this Olympic display of dithering. ‘They’ve run out of money, run out of time, run out of ideas. And, we’ve just seen from the Prime Minister, they’ve run out of courage as well.’
Brown managed to raise the tone from low political knockabout to the loftier region of international relations. Afghanistan was on his mind. President Karzai had offered 5,000 troops (he didn’t specify ‘extra troops’) to hold ground recovered from the Taleban. And Karzai would soon introduce ‘an anti-corruption task force’. That sounds ominously like a new way to collect old protection money. Within NATO, Brown was pressing for ‘fairer burden sharing’ between the allies. Slovakia would shortly announce a doubling of its troop deployment.
When he moved on from the Queen’s speech, Brown relaxed a little and had some partisan fun with Dave’s proposals on inheritance tax. Labour rallied behind him, cheering with wild desperation like drunken sailors being kicked out of a party.
When Nick Clegg stood up there was an unseemly exodus from the chamber. The monarch, he said, had been asked to give ‘a fantasy Queen’s speech’. He questioned the need for yet more laws from a government which has already put over 500 measures on the statute book. ‘Legislation is Labour’s comfort blanket.’ Their proposals were full of superficial gestures. One example, a new measure against child poverty which ‘sets a target but doesn’t put a penny in the pockets of a struggling family.’ In the end, this was a Queen’s Speech written not on parchment but on rice paper.