Charles hesitated, almost like he was thinking: ‘Good grief! Who writes this tommyrot?’
AT Westminster it was best bibs, tuckers and medieval tabards. State Openings are days for military bands, ermine robes and gleaming breastplates.
First thing I saw on arrival at the House of Lords was a platoon of knee-breeched, scarlet-tunic’d Beefeaters marching in silent file.
Last thing I saw of these ghostly old soldiers, they were disappearing down some steep steps to check the boiler-basement for saboteurs’ faggots. It was a surreal sight for nine-thirty on a Tuesday morning.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s spin- doctors. By ye olde alchemy of ceremonial bling and modern political jargon, Charles III bestowed royal blessings on his first parliament. Since Guy Fawkes’s day (1605) it has been the custom for yeomen warders to check the Palace of Westminster’s cellars for gunpowder plots. Quite what they’d do if they found a modern bomb, no one ever says. Pikestaffs are of limited use in such an eventuality.
The previous King’s Speech had been more than 70 years ago. Charles opened by saying that he delivered this one ‘mindful of the legacy of service and devotion to this country set by my beloved mother, the late Queen’. Her Late Majesty’s razor-posh accent always exuded cool dispassion when announcing a government’s legislative proposals. This kingly voice was muddier and not quite so deadpan. When he said ‘my government will change this country and build a better future’ there was a scintilla of hesitation, as if he was thinking, ‘Good grief, who writes this tommyrot?’ And maybe he had a point.
‘My government’s priority is to make the difficult but necessary long-term decisions,’ he said with all the enthusiasm of Just William chewing boiled cabbage. It was the Blair government that first obliged our head of state to speak like a think-tank wonk. This year we had a particularly nasty use of ‘progress’ as a transitive verb.
‘My ministers will introduce new legal frameworks to support the safe commercial development of emerging industries such as self- driving vehicles.’ He himself had arrived in a horse- drawn state carriage with plume-helmeted cavalry outriders. Some anti- monarchists holding ‘Not My King’ banners were at the bottom of Whitehall as the royal carriage passed. The King gave them a ‘coo- ee!’ sort of wave. A distinctly British moment.
The Queen, alongside him in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, wore a champagne-coloured Bruce Oldfield dress embroidered with the names of her grandchildren and images of her Jack Russells, Beth and Bluebell.
The Queen and King entered the Lords chamber via separate doors, almost like figures on a Swiss clock. For one nasty second she nearly sat before him. Then she remembered that the Monarch must be first to take his throne, so she paused for a second with her bottom hovering a few inches off the royal chair.
CROWNWEARING is, for him, a work in progress. He walked as if balancing a bag of flour on his head. Camilla flourished the Diamond Diadem, which is set with hundreds of gems. How its sapphires and emeralds and rubies twinkled! Until that point the Duchess of Wellington’s jewels had been the day’s show-stealer, but suddenly the tiara on Her Grace’s bonce could have been a cheapie from Ratners.
At state openings in recent years there were often spare seats. Not this historic time. The Lords was chocka: Peers, ambassadors, a regiment of hot-faced little heralds, hot and coldrunning flunkeys.
Lord Carrington, the Lord Great Chamberlain, held the billiard cue that was his cut-price wand of office. Lord de Mauley, Master of the Horse, loitered near Princess Anne. That dashing equerry Lieut-Col Johnny Thompson was again showing off manly knees under his kilt.
With two royal trains to be carried, we had more page boys than ever. One of the little boys proudly wore a medal, possibly his swimming proficiency badge.
Peers’ spouses included the diarist Sasha Swire and Carrie Johnson’s friend Henry Newman, inamorato of Lord Verdirame KC. Lord Stansgate (Lab), heir of Tony Benn, took snapshots on his mobile. Lord Gold (Con), mouth agape, was catching flies. Some male members of the Supreme Court chatted up Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary at the Department of Justice. The historian Lord Roberts (Con), in ermine robes which date to Victorian days, appeared to be haloed by camphor.
Admiral Lord West (Lab) wore not only ermine but also naval uniform, complete with white gloves. The Clerk of Parliaments had a napkin as frilly as a chorus girl’s undies. Lord Altrincham (Con), turned quite blond by the years, was matched for youthfulness only by Lady Owen, 30, the baby of the Lords. On the back row smouldered Lord Truscott, friend of the Kremlin. His wife, daughter of a Red Army colonel, also graced us with her presence, sans Kalashnikov.
As is the custom, Black Rod, who needs a haircut, marched off to summon the Commons. As MPs arrived at the Bar of the Lords there was the customary chatter, but it lasted longer than normal and someone hissed ‘shushhhhhh!’ During the speech Lord Flight (Con) rested his eyes. To concentrate? Or editorial comment on its content?
After lunch receptions round the parliamentary estate the Commons reconvened at 2.30pm. Sir Robert Goodwill (Con, Scarborough) had a word of caution for the opposition MPs and journalists who almost unanimously suppose Labour has the next election in the bag. He recalled that the Conservatives were thrashed in the 1986 Ryedale by-election, losing to the Liberals. Thirteen months later, in the 1987 general election, the Tories regained the seat with a majority of almost 10,000.
Sir Keir Starmer, who has reportedly been receiving lessons in vocal projection, made his big speech. He has yet to turn into Donald Sinden.
A droning quack-quack-quack stultified the House and offered no idea as to what Labour would do in government. But at least he praised the King. Rishi Sunak, noting Sir Keir’s past enthusiasm for republicanism, concluded that this was the nasal knight’s first U-turn of the new parliamentary session.