Prince Philip’s death has united parliament – in spirit at least

There was an insight hidden in the wave of praise by MPs for the Duke this week.

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For nearly eight hours on Monday – notably longer than parliament spent debating the final terms of Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU – the House of Commons united to praise the late Prince Philip.

The debate had an eerie quality. The House of Commons, the small debating chamber inside the grander and older Palace of Westminster, held the sole sign of life across the estate, which continues to feel like a ghost town even as activity returns to British high streets this week: politicians' staff are absent, only a handful of MPs are welcome in the chamber at any time, and most journalists are working from home.

If Prince Philip’s passing temporarily brought parliament back together, it did so only psychologically. While Britain’s pub gardens overflowed on Monday, inside the palace the atmosphere was no different from early January, at the height of the second Covid wave.

[see also: Prince Philip: Reactions and Tributes]

The debate itself featured recurrent, if not monotonous, themes. Two were universal. First, the Duke of Edinburgh was ahead of his time. By the end of the debate, he had been depicted as a prophet: a ceaseless supporter of the young, a 21st-century husband, an environmental seer. MPs from Theresa May to Harriet Harman, to Roger Gale, Hilary Benn and Caroline Lucas praised his forward-thinking, with one Tory MP describing him as “a recognised environmentalist before even David Attenborough recognised that he was an environmentalist”.

But it was the second common idea that revealed something. “He was a man,” said Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, “who should be celebrated in his own right.” “He was talented in his own right,” affirmed the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, going further than May (“Philip could have been enormously successful in his own right”). Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper made the point too (“he was also a figure in his own right”), before Tory MP Greg Smith, at 9.53pm for anyone who missed it, noted that, “in his own right, HRH completed 22,000 solo royal engagements”.

There is an irony here. In reality, Prince Philip, however great his personal qualities, was of no note in his own right. He was from an age when life outside the royal family would have meant actual anonymity, not deals with Netflix and interviews with Oprah.

The Duke was part of something greater than himself, which makes his passing in some ways more meaningful than that of a star who truly mattered in his own right. When a solo star dies, so does their star. That is the fate of the famous, and of those royals who strike out on their own away from “the firm”. But Prince Philip’s fame was different. While the Queen is alive, his absence changes the nature of the royal family itself. He has gone, but the institution he was a part of lives on – at least for now.

[see also: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, dies aged 99]

Harry Lambert is special correspondent at the New Statesman and writes long reads. He tweets at @harrytlambert.

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