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Amid regal pomp, U.K. government sets agenda

Two days after her family was dragged into another scandal, Queen Elizabeth II opened parliament on Tuesday with centuries-old tradition and pageantry, laying out the new coalition government's plans .
Image: Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip walk through the Royal Gallery in the Palace of Westminster
Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip walk through the Royal Gallery in the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday.Luke Macgregor / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Only days after her family was dragged into another scandal, Queen Elizabeth II opened parliament on Tuesday with centuries-old tradition and pageantry, laying out the new coalition government's plans to reduce Britain's ballooning deficit and restore growth.

The speech written for the monarch by government officials outlined the plans for the first coalition government since World War II. The somber message promised economic austerity, but also pledged to cap immigration from outside the European Union and to hold a public referendum on making the voting system proportional.

"The first priority is to reduce the deficit and restore economic growth," the queen said as the 2,000 diamonds in her crown glittered under the spotlight.

The speech confirmed that the new government will introduce fixed, five-year parliamentary sessions, hold a referendum on making Britain's voting system more proportional, and change the House of Lords from an appointed to an elected chamber. No date has been confirmed for the referendum on Britain's voting system.

"My government will propose parliamentary and political reform to restore trust in democratic institutions and rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the state," the queen said.

Walk the walk?
Britain's government will introduce legislation that will ensure the public must be consulted on any future transfer of national powers to the European Union, the queen said.

As part of the austerity campaign, the government is considering curbing the use of cars and drivers by government ministers, but it's unclear who will still benefit and who will lose out in a highly symbolic gesture of government cost-cutting.

Cameron's office said Tuesday that the prime minister will keep his official car and driver, but wouldn't say who else would retain the privilege. Further questions were referred to the Cabinet Office, where a spokesman said the issue hadn't been decided.

At Monday's official briefing, Cameron's spokesman also declined to say whether the prime minister would be subject to a general ban on first-class air travel.

The duchess and the paper
Meantime, crowds lined the streets to watch the event, which featured mounted cavalry, Yeoman warders and gleaming carriages — including a horse-drawn one especially set aside to ferry the Imperial State Crown to Parliament.

The grand display of monarchial splendor came on the heels of a fresh episode of less-than-royal behavior from the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, the former wife of Prince Andrew, the queen's son.

The duchess took a blow over the weekend when a Sunday tabloid reported that she had offered access to Andrew, Britain's special representative for trade and investment, to an undercover reporter. Her price? Allegedly a half-million pounds ($724,000), with a $40,000 down payment.

On Sunday, she issued a statement apologizing for causing embarrassment and a "serious lapse in judgment" and said Andrew "was not aware or involved in any of the discussions that occurred."

Government seeks to revive the economy
The new government — the result of a pact between the Conservative Party and the smaller Liberal Democrats after the May 6 election — has drawn up a program focused on reviving the economy and rolling back restrictions on personal freedoms.

Steps to reduce Britain's record budget deficit — public sector net borrowing for the fiscal year ending April 5 was 154.5 billion pounds ($233 billion) — included creating an independent economic forecaster, scrapping a planned increase in payroll taxes and levying a new tax on banks. The Bank of England will be given more supervisory powers.

The proposals also included other reforms, such as the five-year fixed term Parliaments — rather than sessions that can be dissolved by prime ministers whenever they think a new election would be advantageous.

The measures are meant to increase confidence in politics after last year's scandal over lawmakers' excessive expense claims.

No national identity cards
Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, have confirmed they will scrap an unpopular 5.1-billion-pound ($7.3 billion) plan for national identity cards and a linked database.

An ICM opinion poll published late Monday found 54 percent believe the coalition will improve Britain, and 41 percent disagree. The survey of 1,001 people, for the Guardian newspaper, was conducted May 21-23. It had no margin of error — but in samples of a similar size it is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Clegg has acknowledged that Britain's tentative recovery from an 18-month recession means there's little money for lavish programs. Treasury chief George Osborne outlined more than 6 billion pounds ($8.7 billion) in spending cuts Monday.

This year's queen's speech was the 84-year-old monarch's 58th. The ceremony that accompanies it is laden with symbolism of the age-old struggle for power between the monarchy and Parliament.

Since King Charles I tried to arrest members of the House of Commons in 1642 — and ended up deposed, tried and beheaded — the monarch has been barred from entering the Commons, meaning the annual speech is held in Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords.