Shortly after the opening of the debate on the Queen’s Speech on 18 May, rumours began to circulate about a controversial amendment to the traditional, formulaic Motion for an Address of thanks that was going to be tabled. That in itself is unexceptional: the Official Opposition and other parties always table and, if possible, to press for a vote on amendments to express regret that the Government’s programme, as set out in the Gracious Speech, does not include measures which they would like to highlight as the distinctive features of their alternative political programme. What made the rumours of an amendment to the 2016 Address interesting to the Lobby was the likelihood that it would attract support from Members on the Government side who were at odds with the Government’s policy on continued membership of the European Union. (It should be recalled that on 15 May 2013 a rebel Conservative backbench amendment to the Address, regretting the absence of a Bill to hold a referendum on membership of the EU, was defeated by 277 votes to 130, with the official opposition largely abstaining on what was seen as an internal coalition battle.)
Given the size of the current Government’s working majority, it was likely that if the amendment attracted substantial cross-party support it would result in a Government defeat on the Motion for an Address. On Thursday 26 May, the last day of the five-day debate on the Queen’s Speech, the Speaker selected three amendments for decision: one in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, the amendment in the name of Mr Peter Lilley and others, regretting the failure to include in the Queen’s Speech measures to defend the NHS from the proposed TTIP agreement, and an amendment in the name of Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP group in Westminster. Although the Labour and SNP amendments were defeated on division, Mr Lilley’s amendment was agreed to by the House without a vote, and the main Question was accordingly agreed to as amended. Its final form was as follows:
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows: Most Gracious Sovereign, We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament, but respectfully regret that a Bill to protect the National Health Service from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was not included in the Gracious Speech.
This was the first time that a government had been “defeated” on the reply to the Sovereign’s Speech since 1924. On that occasion, the minority Conservative administration of Baldwin presented its King’s Speech and the Address was amended by the combined forces of the Labour and Liberal parties to add at the end of the polite formula the words “but it is our duty respectfully to submit to Your Majesty that your Majesty’s present advisers have not the confidence of this House”. On the following day (22 January) the Vice Chamberlain of the Household (aka the Deputy Chief Whip) brought the King’s reply in the following terms: “I thank you for your loyal and dutiful Address, and will at once give it my careful consideration”. Baldwin resigned that day, and the King invited Ramsay MacDonald to form the first Labour Government. Prior to that, the only comparable defeat of a Government on the Sovereign’s Speech had been on 11 August 1892, following a general election in which the Marquess of Salisbury’s Conservatives had failed to win an overall majority, when a Liberal amendment to the motion for an Address expressing no confidence in Her Majesty’s Ministers, proposed by H. H. Asquith, was carried on division by 350 votes to 310. (The division is notable for the number of Members having participated: of the 670-member House, 665 Members, including the Speaker and tellers, took part in the division, the largest number ever recorded.)
Salisbury offered his resignation as PM two days later and Gladstone was appointed PM for the fourth time on 15 August. The Queen’s response to the Address was indirect – Parliament was prorogued on 18 August until 31 January 1893.
In 2016, the Vice Chamberlain did not get round to delivering the Queen’s reply to the Address until the day that the House rose for the summer recess – 21 July. Quite a lot of political developments had occurred in the period since 26 May, including the EU referendum. The Queen’s response, however, made no acknowledgement of the rider that the Commons had added to its Address of thanks – it stuck to the unvarying formula that she had “received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament”. While it could be argued that the referendum result had overtaken the TTIP reservation it seems odd that, having received for the first time in over 90 years a substantive response to a Sovereign’s Speech, the Palace had not seen fit to even acknowledge (and perhaps put to rest) the concerns of the Commons. But if the communications between the constituent parts of Parliament become evacuated of all substance and make no acknowledgement of their underlying meaning and symbolic purpose, then there is a danger that we will entirely lose sight of the unwritten agreements that hold us together.
This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.