LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Conservative government made sweeping promises to cut crime, improve health care and revive Britain’s pandemic-scarred economy as it outlined its plans for next year during a of a ceremony steeped in tradition in Parliament – but without Queen Elizabeth II, who was absent for the first time in six decades.
The 96-year-old monarch pulled out of reading the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament due to what Buckingham Palace calls ‘episodic mobility issues’. Her son and heir, Prince Charles, intervened, delivering a short speech outlining 38 bills the government plans to pass.
The government-drafted speech promised that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration would “grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families”. But there were few immediate measures to provide relief to households struggling with soaring household energy and food prices.
Johnson said in a written introduction that the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine had created “enormous disruptions in the global economy.” But he warned that ‘no government can realistically shield everyone from the impact’.
The government has announced its intention to invest in railways and other infrastructure, to create a UK infrastructure bank and to increase economic opportunities for poorer regions, as well as projects for Education and Health Care Funding Act.
The speech also promised laws aimed at pleasing the government’s right-wing voter base, including promises to seize ‘Brexit freedoms’ by cutting red tape for businesses and overhauling financial services and data regulations now. Britain has left the European Union.
Some of the plans are already being heavily criticized by opposition parties and civil liberties groups, including a controversial new law to ban disruptive protest tactics favored by groups such as Extinction Rebellion.
Human rights groups have also criticized plans for a UK Bill of Rights to replace current rights laws based on the European Convention on Human Rights. Some environmentalists worry that a bill allowing “precision-bred plants and animals” could open the door to genetically modified foods, which are currently banned.
Rebecca Newsom of Greenpeace UK said the government was going along with the “whims” of Tory backbenchers while offering “not a penny of extra support to households struggling with energy bills”.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which upended the European security order, resulted in plans to tighten espionage laws, introduce an “influence registration system American-style and to toughen money laundering laws – although the mild-sounding measures are unlikely to eradicate London’s reputation as a hub of ill-gotten gains.
Despite prior rumours, there was no legislation to change post-Brexit trade deals for Northern Ireland, a move that would worsen already strained relations between Britain and the EU. But the government has hinted it can act, stressing the importance of “internal economic links” between all parts of the UK, a key theme for British unionists in Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s Tories hold 358 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, which should ensure easy passage of all his laws. But it has been repeatedly derailed by ethics scandals and internal conservative dissent.
The opening of a new session of Parliament came days after Johnson’s Conservatives were beaten in local elections across the UK.
Johnson’s personal popularity has been hurt by months of headlines about parties in his office and other government buildings breaking coronavirus restrictions. The Prime Minister was fined 50 pounds ($62) by police last month for attending his own surprise birthday party in June 2020 when lockdown rules banned social gatherings.
Johnson apologized, but denies knowingly breaking the rules. He faces the possibility of more fines compared to other parties, a parliamentary inquiry into whether he misled lawmakers about his behavior and a possible vote of no confidence from his own legislators.
The Opening Ceremony of Parliament is a spectacular spectacle infused with the two sides of the British constitutional monarchy: royal pomp and political power. Traditionally, the monarch travels from Buckingham Palace to Parliament in a horse-drawn carriage and reads the speech to the assembled legislators from a golden throne, wearing a crown studded with 3,000 diamonds.
The Queen only missed two previous state openings during her 70-year reign, in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with sons Andrew and Edward, respectively.
This year, Charles traveled to Parliament by car, rather than a horse-drawn carriage, and did not wear the crown, which has its own padded seat. But other tokens were present, including Yeomen of the Guard dressed in scarlet and an official known as the Black Rod who summoned lawmakers from the House of Commons to the House of Lords.
The ceremony takes place in the House of Lords, the unelected upper house of Parliament, as the monarch is not allowed to set foot in the House of Commons. Since King Charles I tried to arrest lawmakers in 1642 and ended up being deposed, tried and beheaded, the monarch has not been allowed to enter the House of Commons.
In another symbol of the struggle between the Commons and the Crown, a lawmaker is ceremonially held hostage at Buckingham Palace during the ceremony to ensure the royal family’s safe return.
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