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LIZ GERARD: The right royal farce of the Queen’s speech

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II delivers the Queen's Speech in 2017. (Photograph by Carl Court / POOL / AFP). - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The contents of this week’s Queen speech are well-known because the uncritical UK press have been letting the government trail them for months. LIZ GERARD reports.

The cellars will be searched for gunpowder, an MP taken hostage, a door will be slammed in Black Rod’s face and the Queen will make her way down the Mall in either state coach or Bentley.

The mode of transport will depend on whether we are to be treated to the full works or a ‘dress-down Monday’. The former will mean imperial robes and crown, the latter ‘simple’ day dress – remember the ‘EU flag’ hat in 2017? Maybe this time, Her Majesty could add a spider brooch?

However extravagant or ‘informal’ next week’s State Opening, television commentators will explain in hushed tones what is happening. If they had an ounce of honesty, as the Queen takes the throne to address the MPs and peers crammed into the House of Lords, they would preface her speech with the time-honoured disclaimer: “There now follows an election broadcast on behalf of the Conservative Party.”

For there will not be a single person in Westminster who believes that the speech the Queen delivers will outline a programme of legislation that “her government” intends to enact in the coming months. “Her government” has neither mandate nor majority. The speech will be, to coin a phrase, a pyramid of piffle; a combination of soundbite, aspiration and fantasy with one single purpose: to get Boris Johnson re-elected. If he can survive to the end of the month.

We already know the content of this speech, not because it has been published in a manifesto and endorsed by the electorate, but because it has been pumped out all summer. The Queen will be just Johnson’s latest mouthpiece, unquestioningly spouting his message.

The Queen is not allowed to question him – in public at least. Westminster, dormant for the summer, was first not able and then – silenced when it was supposed to be back at work – not allowed to question him either.

The media, on the other hand, were not only allowed to question him, they had a duty to do so. But instead they became yet another proxy, apparently forgetting all the ‘calling authority to account’ stuff that gets trotted out whenever anyone looks too closely at their practices and output.

The timing of the inevitable general election might still be unclear, but there was no doubt about the timing of the campaign. It began on Johnson’s very first weekend in No.10 with promises of turbo-charged Brexit planning, more money for border forces and an extra 20,000 police, thousands more prison places. All of this was reported as gospel. A £100m Brexit advertising blitz – with T-shirts and mugs? Nobody blinked.

Then came the real biggies: £1.8 billion extra for the NHS, including £850 million to upgrade 20 hospitals; £3.5 billion for schools – which soon ballooned to £14 billion.

Where was all this cash coming from and where exactly was it going? More mostly unasked, unanswered questions.

The hospitals announcement was made on a visit to Boston, Lincolnshire capital of Brexit, and it turned out that all 20 beneficiaries of that £850 million fund were in Leave-supporting constituencies. None of the Brexit-supporting newspapers mentioned that.

Then there were the 40 new hospitals that were to be built, according to a Sunday Telegraph splash last month based on a pre-party conference interview with the great man himself. In fact, there would be six. And some of those would be refurbishments. The other 34 were projects (in Leave and marginal areas) that might – after the election after next – get a share of £100 million of “seed money”. Barely enough to buy an MRI scanner between them.

Similarly, the schools money was to be spent overwhelmingly in Conservative-held constituencies, with very little going to the North or deprived areas of London. We learnt this thanks to an analysis by the Sunday Times, further reported in the Guardian, but while they acknowledged that this was all a pre-election spending spree, the pork-barrel detail did not interest the Sun, Mail, Express or Telegraph.

A fund to help struggling high streets was increased to £1 billion and the shortlist of towns competing for a handout doubled to 100. Again these were in Tory and/or Leave areas.

Innumeracy was rife, context scarce, common sense absent. Grant Shapps announced that £30 million would be spent on upgrading ports in the eight weeks running up to Brexit. It took Twitter, rather than the press, to note that it took £15 million and seven months to upgrade a single roundabout in Oxford. We later learnt that one port that had previously declared itself “Brexit ready” was to receive £100,000 of this fund. It had given £25,000 to both the Johnson and Hunt Tory leadership campaigns. A profitable hedging of bets. Meanwhile, the Sunday Express proudly declared that a trade deal with the US had been sealed – Liz Truss apparently achieving in three weeks something that had taken Canada and Japan eight years.

In his first month in office, Johnson and his ministers made spending promises totalling more than £30 billion. It was like returning to the heady early days of the Blair government, with pre-announcements, announcements and re-announcements, not to mention double and triple counting on planned investment and expenditure.

But in 1997, New Labour had just won a landslide victory. It had set out its plans in a manifesto and had a mandate to carry it out. Johnson may also have just won by a landslide, but from a rather smaller niche electorate. He has a parliamentary majority of -43 and both he and the media have known from day one that he couldn’t do any of the things promised unless he won a general election.

Reporting an election campaign, even the most partisan papers feel obliged to mention other parties’ policies, but with no polling date set, who cares? Their man is in power, why not treat every government pledge as though it were set in stone and ignore (or deride) opposition ideas?

So when thousands of people protested across the country about the suspension of parliament – a ruse the Brexit papers supported – we had postage-stamp pictures and headlines about “Corbyn’s rabble” or “Remoaners”. When Corbyn made big speeches, we learnt more of their content from dismissive leader columns than the news articles. Labour initiatives were shoe-horned into Brexit packages, while new government policies were given standalone treatment in the newspapers and gung-ho headlines such as “Top class! Biggest rise for teachers in 20 years”, often with an accompanying comment piece by the relevant minister.

And here was the biggest problem of all. Worse even than the partisan reporting and the failure to ask pertinent questions, was the wholesale handing over of space to the government.

Newspapers cherish agenda-setting interviews, book serialisations and articles from people in power, exclusives that can be translated into splashes and wider publicity. We expect this in advance of occasions such as the party conferences. But what we have seen recently is something else: Ministers were handed not only the megaphone, but also a brand new set of batteries to make sure they came over loud and clear.

Last Sunday Johnson did what he does best: writing a column that would instantly morph into a front-page story. He made a career of it at the Telegraph, but this time the Sun and the Express were his chosen platforms with identical columns promising that we were “packing our bags” and would be walking out of the EU on October 31st. Since entering Downing Street, he has also written for the Telegraph, Mail and Sunday Times as well as giving three interviews.

The prime minister writes columns for a living. Dominic Raab and Priti Patel don’t. Words are not their areas of expertise. But they were among 17 ministers who suddenly found a talent for commentary this summer.

In the 11 weeks from Johnson taking office to the second prorogation, our national newspapers ran 38 comment pieces by serving ministers, 20 by people who had been in the May government (including 10 by rebels who have since left the party or lost the whip), and a further dozen by other ‘loyal’ Tory backbenchers – most notably the ubiquitous Iain Duncan Smith.

That’s not counting the Sunday Express feature entitled “Jacob’s weekly wisdom” in which the Commons leader is given a tinted panel to issue a soundbite.

In this, the Telegraph papers were by far the market leaders, with a political roll call that included the holders of all four great offices of state, plus their government colleagues Michael Gove, Gavin Williamson, Amber Rudd, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Andrea Leadsom, Steve Barclay and Esther McVey; former ministers David Davis, Liam Fox, Owen Paterson, Penny Mordaunt and Suella Braverman. Then there were regulars William Hague, Duncan Smith and Nick Timothy, frequent contributions from Tory MEP Daniel Hannan and occasional appearances by Nigel Farage.

To be fair, they did let Tory rebel Gutto Bebb and EU negotiator Michel Barnier join the party for a quick cocktail, but swiftly turned their back on them to play the perfect host to more engaging guests.

Over the same period, there was one column by Jeremy Corbyn, four by former Labour leaders, three by Labour MPs and one by Diane Abbott that was about Toni Morrison and had nothing to do with politics. Jo Swinson put pen to paper once.

There were exceptions to this fawning coverage. You’d expect that from the Guardian and Independent, but, refreshingly, also including the Brexit-backing Sunday Times, which has been robust on Yellowhammer and the Jennifer Arcuri scandal. This past week, much of Fleet Street seems to be waking up to that. It’s as though there is a sudden recognition that both the country and the prime minister himself are in danger as a result of his cavalier behaviour: perhaps it might be wise to move a little further back down the £350 million bus as it heads for the cliff. But is it too late?

A free press is absolutely entitled to decide which stories to print and which to ignore, to take a view and pronounce. But it ignores counter views to its peril. Newspapers that lie to or mislead their readers – or fail to ask the right questions – are just as likely as politicians to suffer retribution.

The Queen has no choice but to accept the prime minister at his word: She just does her duty. The press should have no choice but to challenge the prime minister: it has been shirking its duty.

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