Queen’s speech likely to usher in more political uncertainty

Given the current state of negotiations with the European Union, it's no surprise that the government's legislative agenda contained in today's Queen's speech will be dominated by Brexit, writes Julian Francis.

Pomp and pageantry are centre stage today as the Queen arrives at the Palace of Westminster for the state opening of parliament. The elaborate event which mixes ancient and modern traditions provides the government with an opportunity to highlight its forthcoming priorities. 

Normally a Queen’s speech happens once a year, but today’s speech has an added air of  interest as there has not been a state opening since 21 June 2017. That's because the previous prime minister, Theresa May, wanted a two-year parliamentary session to focus on Brexit.

Given the state of Brexit negotiations at this stage it is not surprising that the proposed legislative agenda that will be contained in the Queen’s speech will be dominated by Brexit related legislation in anticipation of the government being able to deliver either a deal or no-deal exit from the European Union.  Although issues around the legal aspects of Brexit will be of interest to the construction sector, it is bills around changes to rail franchising, HS2, the environment and devolution that will have the most impact on the industry.  

The government has announced it intention to scrap the existing rail franchise system, brought in in the 1990’s, with a reformed system based on the recommendations of Keith Williams’s review. As the Williams Review has yet to report, detail is light on the ground on what these reforms will look like but previous comments by Keith Williams indicate a whole new system of rail ownership will be created with a much greater role played by local government in the operation of the network. 

The aim will be to improve train and track interactions for a better customer service but as always the devil will be in the detail. Alongside this, the bill covering the next stage of HS2 that was introduced in the last parliament will be brought back to continue to progress on this project that become more uncertain in recent months. 

There will also be legislation “that would force developers and landlords to comply with rigorous new safety standards” with the aim of avoiding another tragedy like the Grenfell Tower fire. This legislation is most likely to reflect the recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of which the creation of a designated ‘duty holder’ for the design of a project will be of significant importance to ACE members. This new ‘duty holder’ will attract significant liability for the design of projects and so this innovation will change the risk profile of project bids. 

These bills will sit alongside a call from greater devolution with the creation of more metropolitan mayors who, along with existing mayors, will be given greater powers and more control over how money is spent or priorities in their areas. Legislation in this area is likely to be introduced after a white paper and consultation has been issued to gauge public support for the move. Devolution will sit alongside a new environment bill that will aim to set binding targets on air pollution, to cut the use of plastics and increase biodiversity amongst other things within the UK.  

For Boris Johnson, however, the Queen’s speech is the easy part because once the monarch has left parliament MPs will debate and vote on whether to support the proposed agenda or not. With the government currently lacking a majority and having suffered seven consecutive defeats since the summer it is highly likely that Johnson is facing the prospect of another defeat. 

Historically a defeat on a Queen’s speech was treated a confidence vote leading to either the collapse of the government or a general election but the Fixed Term Parliament Act has changed all of this. This means that although Johnson will be under intense pressure to resign following a defeat on the speech, he might not feel the need to do so. 

Jeremy Corbyn may well take comfort from the fact that the last time this happened was in January 1924 to Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin after he proceeded with a King’s speech, under George V, despite having lost his majority in the previous month's general election. Following his defeat, Baldwin resigned and the first Labour minority government was formed. Things are no longer as clear as they were in 1924 so all we can expect is more political uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead regardless of what the Queen says today.

Julian Francis is director of external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.