This was first posted on Facebook on 19th December 2019, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
Well, today I watched the Queen’s Speech and debate.
The Queen brought Charles along. It’s Take Your Heir To Work Day, even if he hasn’t got any. She didn’t wear her coronation robes because this was a quickie Opening of Parliament – as was the one after the 2017 general election – and she could therefore wear half-mourning for the UK’s departure from the EU and arrive – and leave – in a car.
For the first time since 1974, I think, Dennis Skinner was not there in the Commons Chamber to make a rude comment about the Queen’s Speech. I’m sorry he ended a great career by turning to Brexit and then being beaten by a Tory.
I do want to say briefly something which may be a pattern:
In 2017, 2015, and 2010, 24,153, 22,542, and 21,994 people turned out in Bolsover to vote for Dennis Skinner; each time he won with at least 50% of the vote. In 2019, only 16,492 people turned out to vote for him: his share of the vote went down by 16%. 2362 more people voted for the Conservative candidate in 2019 than voted for the Conservative candidate in 2017: their party’s share of the vote went up by 6.9%, and overall, turnout was down by 2.2%. Some of this could be explained by UKIP voters switching to Tory – the UKIP party reached their peak in Bolsover with 9,228 votes in 2015. But it does look very much as if thousands of Labour voters stayed home that day. Skinner was a consistent rebel Brexiter in the Labour Party. But something made about 7000 people who had turned out to vote for him before in previous elections, stay home. What was it?
The Queen’s speech in October 2019 was effectively a pre-manifesto for the general election Boris Johnson wanted and intended to get before he had to stumble on too much longer as the Prime Minister Who Can’t Do Anything: the Queen’s Speech in December 2019 has notably fewer specific promises which might have to be fulfilled.
I noticed particularly that in October 2019 Boris Johnson had the Queen promise “My Government remains committed to ensuring that resident European citizens, who have built their lives in, and contributed so much to, the United Kingdom, have the right to remain” – which promise doesn’t appear, in any form, in the Queen’s Speech in December. Instead there is talk of a “modern, fair, points-based immigration system” and “a new visa will ensure qualified doctors, nurses and health professionals have fast-track entry to the United Kingdom”.
As for the union itself – today Nicola Sturgeon wrote to Boris Johnson formally requesting a Section 30 order for the Scottish independence referendum – the Queen’s Speech promised the government is committed to the “integrity and prosperity of the union that binds the four nations” and specifically mentioned working with all parties in Northern Ireland to ensure devolved government returns to Stormont. As the DUP no longer have the leverage with the UK Government at Westminster that they did, this may even succeed.
The promise to “protect the integrity of democracy and the electoral system” means Voter ID, of course, not the overspending that the Tories have in the past been found guilty of and the misleading Facebook and Google Search ads they were indubitably committing this time.
To rub this in, the adjournment debate, which is generally on some boring but worthy cause a MP wants time for, on the record, even if they know most of their colleagues will have left before they get three sentences into explaining what they’re talking about – the adjournment debate for today was on Voter ID, by a Conservative MP – Steve Baker, whose constituency Wycombe hasn’t elected a MP that wasn’t a Tory since 1950. Steve Baker feels very strongly that elections in Wycombe are corrupt – not because it’s a safe seat that keeps returning Tories (he himself has never won since 2010 with a majority of less than 4000 votes) but because he thinks there is a lot of personation and defrauding using postal votes: he claims “the price of a vote in some parts of Wycombe is £10, a free taxi ride or a free pizza”. Steve Baker is also the Chair of the European Research Group and was, under Theresa May, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
The move by the Tories to demand Voter ID has been described as a “solution in search of a problem”, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to Theresa May’s government in 2018 warning them that this could have discriminatory impacts and risked disenfranchising older voters and the homeless. In all fairness, the 18-24 age cohort are most likely to adopt photo Voter ID *if* it is free and convenient to get – because, in the experience of Northern Ireland democracy, this is useful to prove legal drinking age. But, as older voters Joseph Lawrence and Gillian St Rose discovered when their daughter Courtney Lawrence was made homeless with her two-year-old son, the fact that they had never applied for the British passports which they would be entitled to – as British citizens arriving as children to the UK from British colonies – their daughter was unable to prove she was herself a British citizen. But why would they have applied for passports when they had never been able to afford an overseas holiday? At the next general election, will any of the Windrush generation or their children or grandchildren be allowed to vote?
You might think the issue of older voters being less likely to know they need photo ID to vote, and younger voters having their electoral photo id to hand because they use it to prove they’re entitled to drink legally, might worry the Conservatives a bit more given that when younger people vote, they overwhelmingly don’t vote Conservative, but I think Tories are sure that being left-wing is something people grow out of. Incidentally, in the Queen’s Speech, the government promised to raise the National Living Wage, which is what the minimum wage for over-25s is called: but also to raise the National Insurance threshold, meaning the less you earn the less likely you are to see long-term benefit from continuous employment. (The minimum wage rates go up a bit every April, so this may just be a cheap promise on Johnson’s part.)
The government also promised that “the National Health Service’s multi-year funding settlement, agreed earlier this year, will be enshrined in law”. This sounds well, I’m sure Dominic Cummings thought, but in practice it means nothing: a government with a large majority can change the law, and further, all “enshrined in law” could mean is that the Conservatives intend to add an extra layer of difficulty to raising the funding for the NHS, if something happens in the next few years like, for example, US pharmaceutical companies getting to set their own prices for medications sold to the NHS.
The government also promised to set up a Royal Commission “to review and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process” – which Boris Johnson seems to think will be a matter of locking people up for longer. But if the Royal Commission happens to decide to do its work honestly and produce a thorough report, the consequences of austerity and privatisation on the criminal justice system might be exposed. Or the report might never be published, who can say? But the Secret Barrister on the real problems of the English criminal justice system:
“Meanwhile, as the home secretary, Priti Patel, stands at her podium and smirks: “To the criminals, I simply say this: we are coming after you,” our criminal justice system is in meltdown. It is taking years to investigate and charge offences, as the under-resourced police and Crown Prosecution Service drown in digital data. Cases I have been briefed on this week involve incidents that happened in 2018 and are listed for trial in the summer of 2020. This is because the government has taken what the senior presiding judge, Lady Justice Macur, described as a “political decision” to slash even further the number of crown court sitting days to save on the costs of running courts. This falsest of economies means that perfectly usable courtrooms sit locked and empty and judges twiddle their thumbs at home, on full pay, while the backlog of crown court cases rises to more than 32,000.”
Interference with the independent judiciary which presumed to tell Boris Johnson what he could and couldn’t do is promised by establishment of “A Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” and Boris Johnson is also going to have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act repealed so that next time he can call a general election whenever he feels like it, without having to get the Leader of the Opposition’s approval.
But what we know is Boris Johnson’s actual priority is pushing the UK out of the EU as fast as possible and with as little scrutiny as possible.
Lindsay Hoyle agreed to allow the government a one-day emergency debate on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, either on the Friday or the Saturday, not to be extended ot the following week. The government accepted for Friday 20th December, so *tomorrow* there will be a debate on Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is expected to pass its first and second reading on that day. This Withdrawal Agreement will have two fixed dates in it: one to take the UK out of the EU on 31st January, and the other to end the transition period on 31st December whether or not the UK has agreed a trade deal with the EU by that date. The EU has agreed that the UK can have an extension of up to two years on the transition period if requested by June 2020.
No one believes that a trade deal can be negotiated in 11 months, and apparently Johnson won the European Reearch Group’s support for his deal by promising that in fact the UK would crash out in hard Brexit on 31st December. (Note: this will not be no-deal Brexit, since the withdrawal agreement will at least be in place: it will be the bardest of hard Brexits – a fine distinction, and possibly too fine to matter.)
But it’s worth noting that Boris Johnson never kept a promise in his life that it would be advantageous to him to break: he may also decide to “negotiate” a trade deal with the EU in the same way as he “negotiated” his withdrawal agreement bill, by simply agreeing to everything EU-27 wants from the UK.
But, moving back to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill itself; the Christmas recess will end on Monday 6th January, and debate on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and on certain specific clauses in earlier Withdrawal Agreement bills will continue on 6th, 7th, and 8th January.
Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked if and when the Queen’s Speech debate would resume: he said he couldn’t say but probably not on the week beginning 13th January.
Boris Johnson has a majority of 80. His Withdrawal Agreement Bill will pass, easily, no matter what problems MPs of other parties discover with it. There will be no further extensions or cancellations or rebellions significant enough to matter; the UK is leaving the EU on Boris Johnson’s deal on 31st January 2020.
Boris Johnson has banned his government ministers from attending the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Tuesday 21st to Friday 24th January, and said he won’t be going himself. Reputedly, this is because he thinks the Conservatives ought to maintain their new image as a party for the working-class, a People’s Parliament, rather than “sipping champagne with millionaires”. Practically, given the amount of legislative work Parliament will have to do to leave the EU on 31st January, he may feel this is not the time for swanning off to a conference – I’m quite sure that whenever Johnson was invited to an international conference he was primarily interested in the free food and wine and the chance to stand around doing his Boris act.
But of course there’s the additional reason: Davos is the place wherem as the WEF puts it, the world’s top leaders are engaged “in collaborative activities to shape the global, regional and industry agendas at the beginning of each year” – and there is little doubt that what most of the world’s top leaders will be talking about, when they’re not making fun of Trump, is the UK’s inexplicable decision to commit massive economic self-harm on itself by way of Brexit.
Incidentally, after 31st January, Boris Johnson is banning officials from using the word “Brexit” as he wants to give the impression that he has, in fact, got Brexit done.
Tomorrow the debate on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill’s Second Reading begins at 230pm and may continue “to any hour”.
So, there we are. Goodnight.