On May 4, as it became clear that a resurgent Labour Party had made significant gains at the expense of Britain’s coalition government during nationwide elections, critics began to throw stones at Prime Minister David Cameron. Under his watch, naysayers said, the coalition had wasted too much time dealing with issues like gay marriage, which both Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg support, and reform of the House of Lords, about which Cameron is particularly enthused. Critics say they should have been focused on kick starting Britain’s bruised economy instead. Among those launching verbal grenades at the Prime Minister were several members of his own party.
With internal tension mounting and the coalition on the brink of civil war, Cameron and Clegg decided to renew their vows publicly on May 8 — part of what the British media have dubbed the “coalition fightback.” Speaking inside an Essex tractor factory, outside of London, they tried to show themselves as men of the people. Onlookers included the factory’s employees — some in overalls, all in work gear. Cameron even removed his jacket. In a show of unity, the PM frequently said “I agree with that” and “absolutely right” after Clegg spoke. And both men tried their hardest to emphasize the economy and growth over the coalition’s other initiatives such as the reforming of the House of Lords. Clegg said he was more concerned about apprenticeships for young people. Cameron suggested that electing lords rather than appointing them “was a perfectly sensible reform for parliament to consider,” and he left it at that.
The fightback continued on the morning of May 9, albeit in less austere surroundings, with the Queen’s speech — the most high-profile event on the parliamentary calendar, and the 57th she has given. Although drafted by the government and subject to cabinet approval, the Queen delivered the speech amid the pomp and pageantry of a watered-down royal wedding. Wearing a ceremonial robe and seated on the throne inside Parliament, she set out government policy for the coming year. The government’s new laws will focus on “economic growth, justice and constitutional reform,” she said, while “the first priority will be to reduce the deficit and restore economic stability.”
(PHOTOS: The Queen Opens Parliament in the U.K.)
The 15 bills and four draft bills — a slimmer than usual legislative agenda — include a Banking Reform Bill that will minimize the risk to the taxpayer of banks going under. It will ring-fence retail banking services from banks’ investment activities. The Children and Families Bill will allow prospective parents to adopt children of another race more easily, and will adjust rights regarding maternity and paternity leave so that “both parents may share parenting responsibilities and balance work and family commitments.” And a Pensions Bill will raise the state pension age to 67 between 2026 and 2028, hopefully making the pension system more sustainable as life expectancy rises. Among the more controversial reforms is a Draft Communications Bill which would allow police and intelligence agencies to conduct widespread surveillance on text messages and e-mails. But certain policies — high-speed rail, foreign aid and domestic social care reform — were either watered down or delayed. The Labour Party’s view was that the government “just don’t get it,” with leader Ed Miliband telling MPs, “No change, no hope — that is the real message of this Queen’s Speech.”
Despite downplaying its plans to reform the House of Lords at the tractor factory in Essex, the government included it in the Queen’s speech anyway. “A bill will be brought forward to reform composition of the House of Lords,” the Queen said. It’s intended to bring democracy to the chamber by ensuring the majority of its members are elected, rather than being appointed as they currently are. The government also hopes to reduce the size of the chamber. The Queen did not give a time frame — suggesting it may, in fact, be on the back burner for the time being.
Conservative peer Lord Forsyth, who doesn’t support the plan, wants any changes put before the public in a referendum. And he says support will be hard to come by within Parliament. “There has been a huge rebellion in the House of Commons as the House of Commons realizes that this bill being proposed would have a devastating effect on the powers of the House of Commons and create a competitive chamber,” he said. “The issue here is that if you having an elected House of Lords … it will take power from the House of Commons.”
William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.