Charles attended his first Queen’s Speech in 1967 when Harold Wilson was prime minister. Fifty-six years later, the late-bloomer has finally delivered the first King’s Speech of his reign.
The King, royal editors across Fleet Street inform us, is enjoying his new role. Reports suggest he’s found a balance between maintaining propriety over political interference and agitating for his personal causes. He is said to be thrilled at the prospect of opening the Cop28 climate conference in Dubai this month. Whether that was part of a quid pro quo with Downing Street, so that the King would announce today (7 November) that the government will expand North Sea oil and gas licensing rounds, has not been disclosed. Nonetheless, as MPs gathered in the sheep-pen at the foot of the House of Lords gallery, the question occupying the minds of legislators must have been whether the ceremonial and the political would overlap.
The State Opening of Parliament is part of what the Victorian journalist Walter Bagehot called the “dignified” aspect of the British constitution. Bagehot bisects the constitution between this dignified part (“to excite and preserve the reverence of the population”) and the “efficient” part: to “employ that homage in the work of government”.
Charles did not look eager to dignify the programme of his government. He looked at his courtiers with regal disappointment. It was up to Alex Chalk, the robotic Lord Chancellor, to hand the King the paper containing the pithy speech, presumably after blotting out the Home Secretary’s latest solution to the housing crisis: a promise to confiscate tents from the homeless. Charles proceeded to announce the 21 bills the government hopes to enact this session, one year out from the next general election. The list was lightweight. Strikers will be stopped from shutting down essential services. Those currently aged 14 will forever be prevented from buying cigarettes. The “scourge of unlicensed pedicabs in London”, the King proclaimed, the pearls above his head quivering, is set to feel the full force of the state.
Speaking as if he had an iron bar lodged in front of his lower teeth, the King performed his duty without protest. Those searching for signs of disapproval would have noticed his finger audibly flicking the page over once the North Sea announcement was made, only to then throw a sceptical glance towards the politicians as if to say, “Must I go on?” One cannot help but think that King Charles would have preferred to mark his first State Opening by announcing the programme of a new government.
[See also: Is King Charles too left-wing for the Tories?]