Blair seen as clearing decks for an early election

 

Mr Tony Blair scorned the ambitions of the Conservative leader, Mr William Hague, yesterday after what was almost certainly the last Queen's Speech before the British general election.

Noting the Tory leader's fondness for summing up policies in six words, Mr Blair told him: "You are the weakest link, goodbye." And in a robust defence of his government's record to date, Mr Blair told cheering Labour MPs that neither he nor the British people would ever forget "how bad" the previous Conservative administration had been.

The Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, did little to cool the pre-election fever gripping Westminster last night, acknowledging on BBC radio that "it has become traditional" for governments, even with large majorities, to go to the country after four years.

Nor had ministers dispelled the impression that they were clearing the decks for a May contest with a Queen's Speech promising a headline-grabbing assault on crime and benefit fraud, a ban on tobacco advertising and a free vote for MPs to ban fox-hunting.

Mr Blair insisted his was a legislative programme for a full parliamentary session. However it took Queen Elizabeth barely 12 minutes to announce the government's plans for just 15 Bills - compared to 22 in 1997, 26 in 1998 and 28 last year.

Blaming the "thin" legislative programme on an "arrogant" government that was "all spin and no delivery", Mr Hague said there was "so little in it" it was good of Her Majesty to have delivered it at all.

The Shadow Home Secretary, Ms Ann Widdecombe, dismissed the promised anti-crime measures as "a pre-election puff".

The government's commitment to tackle crime and the so-called "yob culture" were at the heart of the programme announced by the sovereign amid the traditional pomp, circumstance and fanfare of the House of Lords.

Conservative MPs had started queuing before dawn yesterday to "reserve" the best seats in the Commons from which to ensure a standing-room only slot at the bar of the Lords to hear the Loyal Address. This despite the expectation of one early arrival, Conservative Mr David Davis, that this would be "more an advertisement than a Queen's Speech".

But while loyal Tories readily responded to Black Rod's summons to Her Majesty in the Lords, one of the more vocal of Labour's republican tendency, Mr Dennis Skinner, quipped: "Tell her to read the Guardian."

This was in reference to that newspaper's announcement yesterday that it is to back a legal challenge to the 300-year-old Act of Settlement banning Catholics and other non-Protestants from sitting on the English throne.

The paper published an opinion poll showing 63 per cent of the British public in favour of ending the ban on Catholics, as well as on adopted children and the children of unmarried parents - and 60 per cent of voters polled preferring to regard themselves as citizens rather than "royal subjects".

And in an accompanying editorial it attacked the "irrelevant monarchy", saying "those who accepted the hereditary principle as a way of selecting our head of state should accept the throw of the dice". Acknowledging that the country had been "extremely lucky with the present Queen, who has behaved throughout her reign with considerable dignity and common sense", the paper asked: "Who can tell whether Charles has what it takes, or William thereafter?" Declaring its hand for a republic by democratic consensus, the editorial concluded: "Let the Queen remain Queen for as long as she lives, or she wishes, or she remains able. But in the meantime there should be a long, vigorous and grown-up debate - both inside and outside parliament - as to who, or what, should succeed her."