Queen outlines UK government agenda in scaled-down speech

AP News
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Posted: Jun 21, 2017 1:16 PM
Queen outlines UK government agenda in scaled-down speech

LONDON (AP) — Weakened by a disastrous election, British Prime Minister Theresa May ditched some of her most controversial campaign pledges and suggested she was willing to soften her approach to leaving the European Union as Queen Elizabeth II delivered the government's legislative agenda to Parliament Wednesday.

The focus on Brexit was clear as eight of 27 bills outlined in the Queen's Speech dealt with the technicalities of ending Britain's membership in the EU. The speech is written by the government and delivered by the monarch at the ceremonial opening of each new Parliament.

The prime minister, in comments delivered after the speech, promised to work with "humility and resolve" to overcome the divisions in Britain.

"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," she said.

May called the June 8 snap election expecting an overwhelming victory that would silence dissenters and give her a mandate to push ahead with plans to leave the European Customs Union and drastically limit immigration as Britain ends its 44-year membership in the EU. Instead, May lost her majority as many voters shunned the government's approach to Brexit and rebelled against seven years of austerity.

May on Wednesday slimmed down her legislative program, omitting several policies touted during the Conservative Party's election campaign, including plans to change funding for the care of older people, which opponents dubbed the "dementia tax." Also missing were plans to end free school lunches for the youngest children and limit winter fuel payments for the elderly only to those on low incomes.

Nor was there a mention of U.S. President Donald Trump's previously announced, but as yet unscheduled, state visit. May's invitation, extended within days of Trump taking office, has been sharply criticized by all parties.

The prime minister's office said nothing had changed. The visit was not mentioned in the speech because no date has been set, it said.

British businesses generally welcomed the prime minister's softer rhetoric, while calling for her to provide more detail on her plans.

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

The 91-year-old Queen Elizabeth II went ahead with the ceremonial opening of Parliament despite the announcement that her husband, Prince Philip, was in the hospital. Buckingham Palace said Philip, 96, was hospitalized as a precaution for treatment of an infection.

Signaling the importance of Brexit negotiations with the EU, set to continue until the spring of 2019, the speech set out the government's program for two years, rather than one.

In remarks following the speech, May acknowledged government failings in helping victims of a massive fire in a west London tower block on June 14. She described the support on the ground after the Grenfell Tower blaze as "not good enough," and said that it failed to help people when they needed it the most.

"As prime minister, I apologize for that failure," she said.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn denounced the speech, arguing that May had delivered a "threadbare" program devoid of new ideas.

Even before news of Prince Philip's illness, the government had announced that the speech would be delivered with less pageantry than usual as a result of the timing of the snap election.

For instance, Elizabeth arrived at Parliament in a car, rather than a horse-drawn carriage, and delivered the speech in everyday dress, instead of the customary royal robes.

The primary issue was scheduling. The state opening took place only days after another huge annual event, Trooping the Color, a celebration of the queen's birthday. Both ceremonies take weeks of preparation and planning, and it was deemed too difficult to prepare for two such events so close together.

The queen wore a blue hat dotted with a circle of yellow-centered flowers that prompted many on social media to suggest that she was offering a nod to the EU flag.

The European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, posted an image of her during the ceremony on Twitter:

"Clearly the EU still inspires some in the UK," he wrote.