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9 September 2022

The end of an era – and what will happen this week

As Keir Starmer has said, the Queen was “the still point of our turning world”.

By Harry Lambert

Queen Elizabeth II – Britain’s monarch for 70 years, and perhaps the most widely respected figure in the world – died yesterday afternoon at Balmoral, the royal residence in Scotland. She was 96. Her son, King Charles III, 73, has succeeded her, and will return to London today as Britain’s sovereign.

On Tuesday, Queen Elizabeth appointed Liz Truss as the UK’s prime minister. It was the Queen’s last public act as Britain’s monarch. Truss, who was born in 1975, was the 15th prime minister she appointed. Winston Churchill, her first, was born in 1874.

The news began to break yesterday at 12.10pm, when a note was passed to Truss in the House of Commons, immediately attracting attention. Another note soon reached the Labour front benches. A pall was cast over the chamber. Truss and Keir Starmer, who had been debating the government’s momentous plan to freeze energy bills, soon walked out. A statement was released: royal doctors were concerned for the Queen’s health.

For the next five hours, speculation mounted. Westminster nevertheless emptied, as it tends to do on a Thursday afternoon. But on the Mall, crowds began to gather. At 6.30pm, the news came: “This is BBC News from London,” Huw Edwards told viewers. “A few moments ago, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.”

A meticulous national plan has now gone into effect. At Westminster Hall late last night, workers had already begun to take down railings and benches in preparation for the Queen to lie in state – as Churchill did in 1965 – for three days next week. Britons will, for 23 hours a day, be able to file past the Queen’s coffin. Five hundred thousand visitors are expected, with queues for several miles.

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The Queen’s funeral is then expected to be held in Westminster Abbey in ten or 11 days’ time. Political leaders and foreign dignitaries will descend on London ahead of the service, with President Biden among those expected to attend (although his press secretary declined to confirm as much yesterday). Parliament will meet from noon today, and from 2pm tomorrow in a rare Saturday sitting. MPs will pay tribute to the Queen and, for those who wish to do so, swear allegiance to the King.

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To what will they be swearing allegiance? What does the monarchy represent without the only monarch most Britons have ever known? As Keir Starmer put it in his statement yesterday, the Queen was “the still point of our turning world”. That point – the one point, if any, at which every Briton met – is now gone. “She’s the only constant we’ve all had in our lives,” a taxi driver told ITV last night, holding back a sudden wave of emotion. “For 70 years,” Starmer said, she “stood as the head of our country. But, in spirit, she stood amongst us”.

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