To the House of Lords, for the Not-The-Queen’s Speech. Most of the locations in British politics look drab close up: the paintwork peeling, the stonework chipped. The Lords manages to be simultaneously drab and gaudy. The throne, which is covered in gilt, sits in front of a huge backdrop that is also covered in gilt, with lions, and angels, and shields all, in their turn, covered in gilt, leaving the impression that the designer had seen one of Donald Trump’s hotels and liked the general idea, but felt it was just too tastefully executed.
We had been informed the evening before that the star of the show wouldn’t be joining us. In her place, she was sending an understudy, a promising performer who has been waiting for his moment to break into the big time. Would this be it? Critics were in the stalls.
As ever at such times, there were questions. How would the Prince of Wales refer to the Boris Johnson administration, in his mother’s place? Would he say that this was #NotMyGovernment? It is, in a way, truer for him than it is for most sullen children.
The programme, one in each seat, gave some of the details. For this performance the role of Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordinary was taken by Alastair Bruce of Crionarch. Richmond Herald was played by Clive Cheeseman. It’s not clear what either of these did, but no one was injured, so let’s give them four stars.
The chamber was not quite full. There were peers in their ermine, and judges in their wigs, and bishops in their regalia. A couple of benches had been set aside for the wives and, this being the twenty-first-century, husbands of peers.
One of them was James Wild, a Tory MP whose wife, Baroness Evans, is the Leader of the Lords. Wild’s main contribution to British public life so far has been to attack the BBC for not having enough Union Jacks. The Lords has no Union Jacks at all, just angels and lions, which may reflect the chamber’s general loathing of Britain.
None of the guests seemed to have known quite what to wear. Some of the ladies had hats, some not. It was like a slightly awkward society wedding where no one was sure how much fuss to make, it being the groom’s third time around. Up in the gallery, the Sister-in-Waiting Extraordinary, Rachel Johnson, seemed to have got it right, but she has more experience than most of us of difficult family nuptials.
Anything which causes Raab such huge sweaty discomfort isn’t entirely without value.
Large television screens periodically showed us what was happening outside. A procession of large black cars was making its way slowly down the road, holding up traffic. You half-expected to see that one of them was carrying a huge floral arrangement spelling out “MUM”, but actually they had the crown, and a mace, and a cap of maintenance, which sounds like some sort of legal device that a cash-strapped prime minister might apply for in an effort to reduce child support payments.
We saw Dominic Raab, clearly deeply embarrassed to be dressed in the full regalia of Lord Chancellor. Even the greatest critic of pageantry and tradition would have to admit that anything which causes Raab such huge sweaty discomfort isn’t entirely without value.
The speech, we had been told, was going to be about delivering on the promise of Brexit. With the union in trouble and the economy on the brink of recession, one could argue that a lot of this has already been achieved, but there are more delights in store. It would also include a promise to “help every child fulfil their potential,” something that it seemed rather cruel to ask Prince Charles to read out.
Finally, with much processing, we got the man of the hour. The Prince of Wales had decided against borrowing one of the dresses his mother wears so well on such occasions. He had gone instead for a dress uniform of some sort. Commander-in-chief of the Royal Marines? Colonel of the Scots Guards? I’m sure he earned all those medals, though.
To one side stood Christopher Pincher, Johnson’s deputy chief whip, present in his formal role as Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household. He was holding a snooker cue for some reason. It’s entirely possible he was preparing to use it as a weapon if things got tasty or Charles went off script.
After lunch, Pincher would prove to be in especially fine heckling former against Keir Starmer, though it was hardly necessary. Starmer’s speech was flat and unmemorable, with precious little to get his own side excited. Tory MPs began to chatter during it, which may not have been an affectation.
There are people on Twitter determined to persuade the rest of us that Starmer’s beer and curry are part of a huge, strange conspiracy. The problem is that the Labour leader just isn’t that interesting. He is simply implausible in the role of secret party animal.
Finally, with the Commons assembled at the bar of the chamber, Raab made his way forward, bowing, and handed Charles the speech. The prince looked at it with what seemed to be mild distaste, which suggests that, though he would deliver it as though he was seeing the words for the first time, he was broadly familiar with the contents.
He looked down, took a breath, and began to read.
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