ROBERT HARDMAN: The Queen is still very much in charge

The last time the Heir to the Throne opened Parliament, Britain was still subjecting prisoners to hanging, drawing and quartering. 

A new ship, the Beagle, was taking shape in a dockyard in the Thames, from where it would eventually set sail carrying a young naturalist called Charles Darwin.

And, as the future George IV addressed the Lords, announcing new measures against ‘seditious practices’ in British factories, his new-born niece was snoozing in her cot – the future Queen Victoria.

That underlines the significance of what we will see at Westminster this morning as the Prince of Wales reads the ‘Gracious Speech’ in the House of Lords.

It will still be known as the Queen’s Speech. They will not be her words, of course. Nor will they be the Prince’s. They will have been written by the Government, as they always are.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Charles, walks through the Royal Gallery before delivering her speech at the State Opening of Parliament. State Opening of Parliament, London, UK on 14 Oct 2019

Queen Elizabeth ll, Prince Phillip the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne at the State opening of Parliament,Houses of Parliament in the 1970's

Queen Elizabeth ll, Prince Phillip the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne at the State opening of Parliament,Houses of Parliament in the 1970’s

However, inevitably, this historic moment will be seen by many as the first step towards a Regency, the point at which a Regent is appointed in the event that a monarch steps aside due to ‘infirmity of mind or body’.

The comparison is obvious. 

There will be those who point out, perfectly correctly, that when this happened last time, the Prince of Wales had been formally installed as the Prince Regent since 1810, following the advancing mental decline of his father, George III. 

So is history repeating itself?

It must be stressed that this is emphatically not what is happening today. The Queen remains very much in charge – as Head of the Armed Forces, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Fount of Justice, Head of the Commonwealth and so on.

The Prince of Wales will not be sitting on her Throne, but will sit in the Chair of State as he usually does when he attends this ceremony.

None the less, some constitutional experts will argue that the signs are there. After all, in formulating today’s arrangements, Palace and Government officials have invoked the Regency Act of 1937 and, specifically, Section 6 (1).

It states: ‘In the event of illness not amounting to such infirmity of mind or body as is mentioned in section two of this Act [the part which talks about ‘total incapacity’]… the Sovereign may, in order to prevent delay or difficulty in the despatch of public business, by Letters Patent delegate, for the period of that illness or absence, to Counsellors of State such of the royal functions as may be specified in the Letters Patent.’

And, today, that function is to read the ‘Gracious Speech’.

In coming to this solution, the Queen has done something genuinely unprecedented. 

For this is not the first time that she has missed a State Opening. She did so in 1959 and 1963 because she was pregnant (with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, respectively). 

On those occasions she appointed five Lords Commissioners (including the Lord Privy Seal and the most senior member of the Royal Household, the Lord Chamberlain) to open Parliament.

It fell to the Lord Chancellor to read the actual speech.

This was simply a case of following the precedent laid down when Queen Victoria decided not to open Parliament, as she did on many occasions between 1866 and her death in 1901.

Although the Prince of Wales was present on most of those occasions, he did not read the speech either. 

Had he done so, it would immediately have given rise to talk of a Regency.

So why has the Queen gone down this new and different route today? 

I have no doubt that it is more a case of a stoical monarch being pragmatic and moving with the times.

For Parliament was a rather different creature the last time she missed this event. 

First, there were no television cameras. The optics matter so much more today. 

Second, she was still in the early phase of her reign during which she adhered rigidly to precedent. 

After all, it was not until 1967 that she felt sufficiently empowered to put her foot down and insist that Prince Philip’s throne should be placed alongside her own so that he could sit next to her.

Furthermore, the Lord Chancellor was then a very much more substantial figure. He (and it was always a he) was not only the Speaker of the Lords but also the head of the judiciary with far-reaching, ancient powers. 

Tony Blair’s government changed all that in 2005.

Initially, he tried to abolish the Lord Chancellor altogether, without first consulting the Queen. 

She was known to be extremely miffed, not least since one of the Lord Chancellor’s functions and titles is ‘Keeper of the Queen’s Conscience’. 

And she was not happy about her conscience being abolished.

Mr Blair softened his reforms, but that former role is now divided between the Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, and the current Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, who also holds the title of Lord Chancellor (while not being a Lord).

Given the prospect of all sorts of quibbling over which of those should or should not recite the ‘Gracious Speech’, the Queen has cut through any constitutional quarrels with her Letters Patent saying that the task will fall to the Prince of Wales.

This is, in no sense, any sort of power grab. Considering that he is the longest-serving Heir to the Throne in history, Prince Charles has been scrupulously correct in not muscling in on his mother’s territory. 

He has steadfastly refused to discuss any plans for his future reign for the simple reason that it would be disrespectful and bad manners.

He has stepped up to the plate when requested, such as when he lays the Sovereign’s wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

I imagine that when we resume welcoming State Visitors to post-pandemic Britain, he may well take centre stage then, too.

It is significant that he will now be accompanied by the Duke of Cambridge today, underlining that monarchy is, ultimately, about continuity and stability.

Above all, however, royal watchers should pay careful attention to the position of the Crown itself today.

It will not be placed before the Prince of Wales. Rather, it will sit in front of the vacant Throne of the Sovereign, making it clear where sovereign power resides.

For all that, this is still a very historic day – for the Crown and Parliament alike.

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