He’d have snapped minutes in
They came to praise the world consort
You probably had to be there. As MP after MP paid tribute to the late Prince Philip, many recalled a remark he had made to them, or one of their children, or one of their constituents, at a garden party, or on a tour, or after unveiling a plaque. Most of these witticisms, the sketch is forced to report, lost something in the retelling.
Perhaps it was the way he told them. Or perhaps it was simply that it was him who was telling them at all: that the husband of the Queen was making a joke to them, trying to make a frightening social experience into an enjoyable one. After hours of these anecdotes, with many, many, many MPs still to speak, one was left deeply impressed by, if nothing else, the late Duke’s capacity to talk to politicians without slapping them.
There was a lot of black in the chamber: black ties, black suits and black dresses. A couple of Tories were in morning dress, and SNP leader Ian Blackford was wearing a kilt.
As the speeches went on, a new divide emerged in British politics: which members had done the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, and had they got a Bronze, Silver or Gold one? The DofE is the sort of thing that sensible teenagers do to help their university applications, while teens who get invited to parties sneer at them. Ed Davey had done it, of course, proudly telling us that he had received his Gold certificate from the Duke himself. Keir Starmer, another Gold award-holder, although he was too modest to say so, recalled a teenager saying it had left her feeling she could do anything.
Not everyone, of course, needs a certificate on their wall to give them a feeling of unassailable self-confidence. Which brings us to the prime minister. His hair was freshly shorn, though not combed – his respect for the monarchy has its limits, as the Supreme Court can tell you. His speech was one of his better ones, a well-constructed tribute rather than the unconnected series of talking points he often falls back on.
As it went on, though, one started to wonder who the prime minister was really talking about. “It is true that he occasionally drove a coach and horses through the finer points of diplomatic protocol,” Johnson said. “But the world did not hold it against him. On the contrary, they overwhelmingly understood that he was trying to break the ice, to get things moving and to get people laughing.” He was definitely paying tribute to Prince Philip, yes, but did he have anyone else in mind? Was there another figure around who could perhaps hope “to be at once politically incorrect and also ahead of his time”?
If Johnson wanted to claim the Duke as a champion for people who shouldn’t be judged too harshly for their words, Starmer, when it was his turn to speak, was determined to have him for plodding chaps who put in the hours tramping round Dartmoor while some other people are off necking champers with the Bullingdon. The British love their monarchy, the Labour leader explained, for “the quiet virtues, the discipline and the sacrifices we commemorate today”.
On we went. Ian Blackford, untypically, told a joke at his own expense. Iain Duncan Smith, entirely typically, told one at Matt Hancock’s. Duncan Smith was in frock coat with a dark waistcoat (and possibly slips, I’m told, but this sketch is awaiting further confirmation), and wanted to tell us that the thing about the Duke was that he came from a generation that was “uncomplaining”.
Things were different now, Duncan Smith complained. “Everybody complains or bellyaches the whole time about everything and about each other, often rudely and arrogantly.” Was he still talking about Prince Philip, or had his mind slipped back to his time as Tory leader?
Every MP wanted to have their say, but not every MP had much to add
The session was set to go on for hours, and few will have watched all of it. But Theresa May’s speech stuck in the mind. Speaking without notes, she offered a fluent and personal perspective. “I do know how important it is to have a husband—a partner—who is a source of strength and a rock in times of trouble,” she said. “As a hugely talented person, Prince Philip could have been enormously successful in his own right, but he put his life to ensuring the success of his wife.”
After that, we were rapidly into a world of diminishing returns. Every MP wanted to have their say, but not every MP had much to add. The Duke had, it turned out, visited their constituency too, where young people had also, as it happened, benefitted from the awards scheme. Just occasionally, someone would allude in passing to the fact that quite a lot of other people have lost a beloved family member in the past year. Perhaps at some point Parliament will spend eight hours discussing that, but then the timetable is so very tight.
At the time of writing, quite possibly at the time of reading, they were still going. The Duke proves that Johnson can be undiplomatic but somehow still a supreme diplomat, that Starmer is doing the right thing by going steadily, and that Duncan Smith was badly treated by his party. Maybe the real Duke of Edinburgh was the point we wanted to make along the way.
But if that sounds churlish, I should say that the early tributes were, in their way, quite moving. You probably had to be there.
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