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Queen’s speech lays out Johnson’s domestic agenda

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, proceeded through the Royal Gallery on their way to the Lord's Chamber to attend the state opening of Parliament in London on Thursday.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, proceeded through the Royal Gallery on their way to the Lord's Chamber to attend the state opening of Parliament in London on Thursday.Jack Hill/WPA Pool/Getty Images/Getty Images

LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II arrived in the British Parliament on Thursday to lay out the legislative agenda for the new government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which is pledging to carry out a swift exit from the European Union and to make major investments in Britain’s National Health Service and the police.

The pomp and ritual of the speech, which by custom marks the seating of a new Parliament, was more subdued than the queen’s last appearance in the House of Lords to deliver a similar speech just two months ago. That came after Johnson had suspended Parliament prematurely amid a furious debate over his Brexit policy.

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At the time, Johnson’s Conservative Party had no majority in Parliament and was essentially powerless to push any contentious legislation. The queen’s speech essentially amounted to a political pitch by Johnson to voters before a general election.

This time, the political context could scarcely be more different.

After a landslide victory that gave Johnson a wide majority in Parliament, the fate of Johnson’s plan is no longer in question: Britain will leave the EU, as he promised during the campaign, by the end of January.

The prime minister is now shifting attention to his domestic agenda, which augurs an end to the era of austerity, with heavy spending on popular programs like health care, education, and law and order. Thursday’s speech was designed to start delivering on campaign promises.

At the heart of the new program is a Brexit bill, aimed to ensure that Britain leaves the EU Jan. 31, but there will also be a raft of legislation to deal with the changes wrought by Brexit.

Those will include bills on agriculture, fisheries, and trade — areas where the British government will take over powers currently exercised by the EU. And there will be laws to cover a new immigration system that could come into place at the end of 2020, removing the special status that citizens of other EU member countries currently have in Britain.

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In addition, the program will flesh out the Conservative Party’s election pledge to channel more money into the increasingly beleaguered National Health Service, putting into law the promise to increase funding by 33.9 billion pounds, or about $43 billion, by the fiscal year covering 2023 and 2024.

Another campaign theme was a tougher stand on crime, with increased sentences for violent and sexual offenders and requirements that those convicted of the worst offenses — including terrorism — serve more of their sentences.

The election was buffeted by a stabbing attack near London Bridge that killed two people as well as the assailant, an Islamic extremist who had been released from prison. Police classified it as an act of terrorism, and it prompted a debate over sentencing for extremists.

Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for several weeks was overturned by the country’s Supreme Court in September, and his new plan for government includes a move to review the powers of the country’s top judges. A new Constitution, Democracy, and Rights Commission will develop proposals to review the country’s constitutional arrangements.

There will also be a move eventually to scrap an act of Parliament that makes it hard for prime ministers to call a general election at a time of their choosing.

While the ceremony had many of the rituals of previous queen’s speeches — members of the House of Commons were summoned to the House of Lords by the Lady Usher of the Black Rod, who bangs her staff on the door to their chamber — the queen arrived in a limousine rather than a gilded, horse-drawn carriage.

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The queen, having gone through the entire exercise 60 days earlier, was not keen to repeat every aspect of the ritual. Since her last appearance, the queen has had her own turmoil to deal with: the withdrawal of her second son, Prince Andrew, from his public duties after a storm of outrage over an interview he gave to the BBC about his relationship with disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.