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Artillery Row Sketch

My kingdom for a licensed pedicab

The text for the King’s Speech failed to inspire

“My government’s priority,” the King began, “is to make the difficult but necessary long-term decisions to change this country for the better.” His tone as he read these slogans was either careful neutrality or intense distaste. It can be hard to tell the difference. 

We had gathered early in the House of Lords for the State Opening of Parliament. The peers were in their robes, and even the sketchwriters had put on ties. Since the last time we’d all been there, we’d got through two prime ministers and a monarch, and enjoyed some really first class pageantry. Now we were here for another moment of history: the first King’s Speech in 70 years! 

Like a lot of moments of history, this one involved a lot of sitting around. We passed the time by reading the programme, which offered a glimpse of a secret world the rest of us can’t hope to understand. Can you, for instance, name the Gold Stick in Waiting? Do you know why we have a Norfolk Herald Extraordinary, or what he does? I can reveal that the Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordinary was, once again, Alastair Bruce. He’s been Fitazalaning for decades. Nobody Fitazalans better. It makes me feel sad for the Rouge Dragon Pursuivant. 

A couple of hundred yards away, MPs were also waiting in the House of Commons. This was supposed to be the moment of the Great Conservative Reset. Of course, last  month we were told that Rishi  Sunak’s conference speech would deliver a reset. And before the day was out we were hearing that the Autumn Statement will be the real reset. The government is being turned off and on again like a five-year-old laptop with a hard disk full of viruses. 

Finally, the King and Queen entered the chamber on opposite sides, like one of those clocks where little figures emerge to show you the weather.  This was a day to be wearing fur and a crown, apparently. They sat on their thrones, and page boys arranged their trains at their feet.

The MPs arrived, summoned from their own chamber. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer walked over, as is traditional, together, apparently chatting warmly. There is usually a battle at these moments to look like the one who is leading the conversation, but the prime minister didn’t even seem to be trying, leaving it to the Labour leader to make authoritative hand chops for the cameras. Instead Sunak fiddled nervously with his cuffs. It was, in a way, his big moment too. 

Perhaps he was simply nervous because he’d heard the King rehearsing the speech

Perhaps he was simply nervous because he’d heard the King rehearsing the speech. The language wasn’t flattered by the delivery, which seemed designed to emphasise that His Majesty definitely hadn’t written any of this rubbish. At the end of the paragraph about the Rwanda policy, the King seemed to make a face. At other points he let out little sighs. Perhaps that’s just his style. He didn’t seem much more enthusiastic giving us the lines on biodiversity, of which we’re pretty sure he does approve.

There wasn’t much excitement in there. “A bill will be introduced,” Charles groaned, “to deal with the scourge –” here our ears pricked up. What public menace was finally going to be tackled? Bicycle thieves? Charity muggers? Pop-up windows asking us to accept cookies? “—of unlicensed pedicabs in London.” As resets go, this is not causing the heart to stir.

The speech finally over, the King and Queen now left by opposite doors to the ones they’d used to come in, requiring them to cross each other’s paths. Their long trains gave this the feel of a very stately manoeuvre by the Red Arrows. Outside, republican protestors were waiting to boo them. A good time was had by all. If only all our differences could be aired so cheerfully. 

The Commons would give us its own indifferent rhetoric in the afternoon. By tradition, the first two speeches in response to the monarch’s are humorous ones, from a rising new MP and one who is on their way out. Robert Goodwill, who is retiring at the next election, offered a couple of decent jokes: the difference between an MP and a shopping trolley? “A supermarket trolley has a mind of its own.” On reflection, he said, the difference was that “there’s a limit to the amount of food and drink you can get into a trolley.” 

Starmer and Sunak had to follow these speeches with replies in which they shifted gear from warm bonhomie to bitter political attack. Neither quite achieved it. As the Labour leader listed the government’s various by-election defeats over the last session, the prime minister tried to look like he could see the funny side, but the relaxed expression didn’t quite reach his eyes. 

Starmer’s speech was too long, but its most effective passage was focused on the Home Secretary, and her remark at the weekend that homelessness was a “lifestyle choice”. She was half-right, the Labour leader said. “Homelessness is a choice: it’s a political choice.” Suella Braverman performs a useful function for Starmer. At a time when many of his backbenchers are angry that his approach to Israel is so close to the government’s, she is a useful unifying hate figure for his party. Whatever their other differences, they all agree that they can’t stand her.

Sunak too struggled to hold the interest of the chamber, going even longer than Starmer, and finishing with an odd, graceless passage on how Labour couldn’t be trusted to look after the army. Before he had finished, his own MPs were staring at their phones. The pedicab crackdown hadn’t delivered. Time for another reset. 

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