The first impression as we looked into the chamber of the House of Commons was darkness. The green benches were full, and in every place was a dark suit or a black dress. Luke Evans, a Conservative, was wearing a black shirt as well, and a shiny black tie, obviously intended to convey deep sorrow, but unfortunately leaving the impression that he’d come straight from his side-hustle as a nightclub bouncer.
Tory MPs who had until recently been at each other’s throats suddenly found themselves summoned to sit together and pretend to get on, like a troubled family at a funeral. There was Boris Johnson, face very pink between his white shirt and his unkempt blond mop, two seats away from Theresa May. There, in a distant corner, was Rishi Sunak, both small and far away.
And still the words sounded strange
Sitting on the front bench in a neat black dress was Liz Truss, looking pretty shattered. It was barely 72 hours since the Queen had invited her to form a government, and now she was suddenly being asked to lead not just a nation but a world in mourning. Sometimes you can be surrounded by people and still appear very much alone.
Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, kicked things off. He was, for some ancient constitutional reason wearing strange white cuffs that went halfway up his arms, making him look like a policeman guiding traffic. “My deepest sympathies,” he said, towards the end of his tribute, “are with His Majesty the King.” It was a sudden jarring moment. We knew why we were there, but still it was strange to hear it.
Speaking next, Truss did fine. The articulation of national grief is a very hard job and, perhaps aware that this sort of thing is not her strong suit, she played it straight, avoiding rhetorical flourishes. “The United Kingdom is the great country it is today because of her,” she said of the Queen. “The Commonwealth is the family of nations it is today because of her.” Some people’s legacies don’t need garnishing.
It seemed particularly unfair that Truss was being forced to do this without even the advantage of a store of private chats with the Queen to call upon for anecdotes. “Everyone who met her will remember the moment,” she said. “They will speak of it for the rest of their lives.” Behind her, Johnson nodded. In his case, there will doubtless be indiscreet and unreliable memoirs, too.
“His Majesty King Charles III,” she said, and again, it just sounded strange, “bears an awesome responsibility that he now carries for all of us.” She’d spoken to the King last night. “He has already made a profound contribution through his work on conservation and education, and his tireless diplomacy,” she said. “We owe him our loyalty and devotion.” Perhaps she felt that she needed to make that point, that there would be some who, having lived under the Queen all their lives, would not take it for granted that they have to accept the next guy.
We were, she said, in “a new Carolean age”. I can’t see that catching on. “The Crown endures, our nation endures, and in that spirit, I say God save the King.” Next to us in the gallery Tom Tugendhat, the new Security Minister, who hadn’t been able to get a seat in the chamber, replied loudly: “God save the King!” And still the words sounded strange.
Think of it as her final service to the nation
The next person to utter them was Keir Starmer, for Labour. Sitting far away at the back of the chamber was his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who would probably have struggled with that bit. Starmer said it twice, for good measure. It was a decent speech. “Our Queen played a crucial role as the thread between the history we cherish and the present we own,” Starmer said. “Never was this link more important than when our country was plunged into lockdown at the start of the pandemic.” Truss had steered clear of mentioning the pandemic, which was odd, given that it was the Queen’s last great moment of national leadership. Perhaps she felt it was best avoided, given what had been happening elsewhere at the top of government.
Johnson, of course, felt no such squeamishness when it was his turn to pay tribute, talking about “the darkest days of the Covid pandemic when she came on our screens and told us that we would meet again—and we did.” Some of us sooner than others, as it turns out.
He got the first big laugh of the session, when he described telling her during the London Olympics that “the leader of a friendly Middle Eastern country seemed actually to believe that she had jumped out of a helicopter in a pink dress and parachuted into the stadium”.
Unlike Truss, Johnson is good at this stuff, even if his repeated efforts to rebrand the Queen “Elizabeth the Great” feel like a transparent bid to leave his mark on the moment and match “The People’s Princess”. But as with all Johnson speeches, you quickly started to wonder who he was really talking about. The Queen, he told us, “knew instinctively how to cheer up the nation, how to lead a celebration” and “had the patience and the sense of history to see that troubles come and go, and that disasters are seldom as bad as they seem”.
Had the Queen died earlier in the year, it’s not difficult to imagine Johnson harnessing the event to his great survival project. So we should be grateful she lived long enough to save us the prospect of Johnson in Westminster Abbey, mugging his way through Ecclesiastes and hinting that, in a way, she had been the Boris of people’s hearts. Think of it as her final service to the nation.
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