LONDON (AFP) – Prime Minister Theresa May, leading a so-called “ zombie” government after a disastrous election, on Wednesday (June 21) unveiled a diluted programme of action that included the mammoth legislation needed to take Britain out of the EU.
The state opening of parliament by Queen Elizabeth II came after a string of tragedies which have shaken the nation, and the election on June 8 in which May’s Conservatives saw their parliamentary majority wiped out.
The Queen, at an occasion shorn of its usual pageantry, read out the watered-down list of proposed legislation and lawmakers will then spend the next few days debating before bringing it to a vote.
May could be forced to resign if she loses the vote, expected on June 29, just as the country embarks on highly sensitive negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he was ready to step in and build a rival government – although he and other opposition parties lack the collective numbers to bring down May.
“This is a government without a majority, without a mandate, without a serious legislative programme led by a prime minister who’s lost her political authority,” Corbyn told parliament.
“Labour is not merely an opposition. We are a government in waiting,” he said during hours of heated debate in which May fended off calls to resign.
After four terror attacks and a deadly tower block blaze that have darkened the national mood in the past three months, anti-government campaigners also staged “Day of Rage” protests that converged outside parliament.
“Bring Down The Government”, “Austerity Kills” and “You Can’t Trust Her”, read some of the placards.
A banner said “We Need Justice For Grenfell Tower” – a reference to the tower block fire last week in which 79 people died, prompting criticism of budget cuts and officials for ignoring warnings about fire safety risks.
May apologised for the chaotic official response to the fire, telling MPs it was “not good enough”.
“As prime minister, I apologise for that failure,” she said.
The enfeebled premier, who is still locked in difficult talks with a Northern Irish party to prop up her administration, said her programme was about seizing opportunities offered by Brexit.
The Queen said: “My government’s priority is to secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union.” She said her government would seek “to build the widest possible consensus on the country’s future outside the European Union”, amid divisions within May’s own Cabinet over the best strategy.
Business leaders reacted positively to the change of tone in the speech and Corbyn said he also hoped for a Brexit deal “that puts jobs and the economy first”.
The speech announced no fewer than eight bills to implement Brexit, and new legislation aimed at tackling extremist content online after the terror attacks.
But the speech was notable also for what it did not contain.
There was no mention of May’s hugely controversial invitation to US President Donald Trump to come on a state visit.
Also absent were key pledges the Conservatives had given in their manifesto for the recent election which analysts said had bombed with the electorate – such as reform of social care for the elderly and more shake-ups in schools.
There was no mention too of May’s controversial promise to allow a parliamentary vote to repeal a ban on fox hunting, which angered left-wingers.
The Times branded May’s administration the “stumbling husk of a zombie government” and said she was now “so weak that she cannot arbitrate between squabbling Cabinet ministers”.
“Downing Street is a vacuum,” the newspaper said, two days after Britain and the EU formally started their Brexit negotiations.
NO DEAL YET
May called the snap general election in a bid to strengthen her mandate heading into the Brexit talks.
But the plan spectacularly backfired, leaving her with a minority government that is now trying to form a majority with Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
May has resisted calls to resign and is hoping for the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs to boost her tally of 317 seats in the 650-seat parliament, but a deal has proved elusive so far.
“We are doing what is in the national interest, which is forming a government to address the challenges that face this country at the moment,” May said.
But a DUP source said a deal was “certainly not imminent” as the talks “haven’t proceeded in a way that the DUP would have expected” and cautioned that the party “can’t be taken for granted”.
Even with DUP backing, the government would command only a tiny majority, and just a few rebel MPs could be enough to undermine it fatally.