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9 September 2022

“Elizabeth the Great”: MPs pay tribute to the Queen

Liz Truss, Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson and Theresa May led parliament in memorial.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The House of Commons was sombre today as MPs paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, who the Labour Party leader Keir Starmer called “Britain’s greatest monarch”. 

The Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, opened the session by declaring the late Queen was the “most conscientious and dutiful of monarchs” and “is wed in our minds with the Crown and all it stands for”, and MPs bowed their heads while dressed in black.

The Prime Minister Liz Truss, who will hold her first audience with King Charles III today, opened by saying the nation had “witnessed the most heartfelt outpouring of grief at the loss of Her late Majesty the Queen. Crowds have gathered. Flags have been lowered to half-mast. Tributes have been sent from every continent around the world.” Truss recounted how she was invited to form a government by the Queen just three days ago: “She remained determined to carry out her duties even at the age of 96.”

She added that the UK was entering a new “Carolean age” under the new monarch: “All of us in this House will support him as he takes our country forward to a new era of hope and progress. Our new Carolean age. The crown endures. Our nation endures. And in that spirit, I say: God save the King.”

This was followed by moving words from Starmer. He said the “deep and private loss” being experienced by the royal family was shared by the nation as “Queen Elizabeth created a special, personal relationship with us all”.

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“That relationship,” he continued, “was built on the attributes that defined her reign: her total commitment to service and duty, a deep devotion to the country, the Commonwealth and the people she loved. In return for that, we loved her.

“And it is because of that great shared love that we grieve today. For the 70 glorious years of her reign, our Queen was at the heart of this nation’s life. She did not simply reign over us, she lived alongside us, she shared in our hopes and our fears, our joy and our pain. Our good times and our bad.”

The former prime minister Boris Johnson, who tendered his resignation to the Queen at the start of this week, also offered an emotional tribute to the late monarch, calling her “Elizabeth the Great”. He said: “I can tell you, in that audience, she was as radiant and as knowledgeable and as fascinated by politics as ever I can remember and as wise in her advice as anyone I know, if not wiser.”

Johnson also recalled how, as PM a few months ago, the BBC asked him to speak about the Queen but “requested that I should talk about her in the past tense… I am afraid I simply choked up and I couldn’t go on. I am really not easily moved to tears, but I was so overcome with sadness that I had to ask them to go away.

“I know that today there are countless people in this country and around the world who have experienced the same sudden unexpected emotion.”

[See also: The Queen’s death leaves a nation unsure of its place in the world]

Theresa May made a poignant contribution, saying Queen Elizabeth was the “the most remarkable person I have ever met” and “her selfless devotion to duty was an inspiration and example to us all”. The former PM also cheered her fellow parliamentarians with stories of her encounters with the royal.

“Across the nations of the world, for so many people, meeting Queen Elizabeth simply made their day and for many will be the memory of their life,” she said. “Of course, for those of us who had the honour to serve as one of her prime ministers, those meetings were more frequent with the weekly audiences. These were not meetings with a high and mighty monarch, but a conversation with a woman of experience and knowledge and immense wisdom. They were also the one meeting I went to which I knew would not be briefed out to the media.”

The MP for Maidenhead recounted an incident when she visited Balmoral as prime minister. Having dropped a piece of cheese that she was “transferring to a table” at the countryside retreat, “I had a split-second decision to make,” she said, adding she quickly opted to pick it up and put it back on the plate. “I turned round to see that my every move had been watched very carefully by Her Majesty the Queen. I look at her, she looked at me, and she just smiled. And the cheese remained.”

Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman, the Mother of the House, said parliament’s relationship with the Queen was never “just on paper”. The former minister remembered how “after Labour won the election in 1997, I went up to the palace where, like other new secretaries of state, she appointed me… but when just a year later I was sacked… my diary was empty, and my phone stopped ringing. My office was astonished to get a call from Buckingham Palace. No one else wanted to have anything to do with me, but the Queen wanted to see me. I was invited to take tea with the Queen for her to thank me for my service as secretary of state.”

She added: “My point is that the relationship between our Queen and parliament and our Queen and government was never just on paper, but was always active and always encouraging.”

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith also recalled a monarch with a sense of humour. “I remember when I ceased being leader of the Conservative Party… she kindly asked me to take leave of her officially,” he told the Commons. “I came to the palace and I was ushered into her drawing room… I was struck by two or three things. One was the two-bar electric fire which had a very strange piece of cardboard cut out in the shape of flames, coloured with crayons… surrounding the two-bar fire which I thought was peculiarly dangerous.

“The other one was the tupperware radio sitting next to her which I hadn’t seen since my parents smashed their last one and then she very sweetly asked me how I was being clearly sympathetic about what had happened. I just shrugged and said, ‘Well ma’am, nobody died and I am still here.’ Whereupon she roared with laughter, and the funny thing was as she did she paused, looking at me, not sure whether I had actually made a joke. I laughed too and then she laughed again – whether at me or with me, I couldn’t figure that out.”

[See also: The end of an era – and what will happen next

The SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, said: “The grief and mourning which reverberates around this chamber and across the world, will be all the more acute for the King and members of the royal family… Over the coming days people up and down these islands will seek to come to terms, in their own private way, with the loss of one of the true constants in all our lives.”

Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader and current shadow secretary for climate change, told MPs: “[Duncan Smith] talked about his experience when he was deposed as leader of the opposition… I was deposed by the British people rather than my party… but I should say to the House that, as my career nosedived, my wife’s took off and she became a High Court judge in 2019 and became a dame.

“And so, we were both invited to the palace to meet Her Majesty and Her Majesty fixed me with her gaze, as we saw each other and said, ‘Oh it’s you.’ She said, ‘What are you doing here?’, knowing full well why I was there, and we had a wonderful conversation. And there she was at 93 still full of vim, vigour and humour.”

Of King Charles, Miliband said: “He has been an extraordinary warrior on the issue of the environment, long before it was fashionable. And when I was climate change secretary, I always thought of him as an extraordinary national asset on this issue, and he remains so.”

The Labour MP Hilary Benn also paid tribute to the Queen’s long service, saying: “Although many things changed during her reign, she did not change. Above the noisy clamour of politics and public debate, she carried on and showed us what service means, carried out with grace and humour.”

[See also: The Queen made us a gentler and kinder country]

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