Queen Elizabeth Photograph:( Reuters )
The spotlight shone brightest on Queen Elizabeth II, who appeared in public for the first time since burying her husband, Prince Philip, to handle the age-old pageantry
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoped to use the opening of Britain’s Parliament on Tuesday to galvanize his government’s agenda after a striking series of victories in regional elections in England last week. But the spotlight shone brightest on Queen Elizabeth II, who appeared in public for the first time since burying her husband, Prince Philip, to handle the age-old pageantry.
Squired by her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, the queen presided over a ceremony she had attended for decades with Philip. Now a widow, and three weeks after turning 95, her voice was firm and steady as she read the Queen’s Speech, in which Johnson’s government laid out an ambitious agenda to “level up” the economically depressed north of England with the more prosperous south.
It was the queen’s 67th opening of Parliament, a reassuring sign of continuity for Britain’s constitutional monarchy after a turbulent period for the royal family. For Johnson, it was a chance to bring normalcy back to politics, after the turmoil of Brexit and a pandemic that paralyzed the country, leaving more than 127,000 people dead.
Johnson signaled that he intended to keep playing a dominant role in the political arena, proposing to scrap a law that restricts his ability to call general elections. With the government reaping credit for Britain’s swift rollout of vaccines and the prospect of a post-lockdown economic boom, Johnson might decide to call an election a year early, in 2023, to take better advantage of the good news.
The government also proposed that voters be required to show photo identification at polling places in general elections, which it defended as a means to prevent fraud. But opposition parties criticized the move as unnecessary, and said it could suppress turnout, particularly among ethnic minorities — an argument often made about voter ID laws that have been passed by several American states.
“Voter ID is a disgraceful piece of chicanery,” said Baroness Rosalind Scott, a member of the House of Lords and a former president of the Liberal Democrats. “Voter fraud is very rare here, so it’s a solution in search of a problem.”
It was one of a handful of right-leaning measures — including a crime bill that would allow police to sharply restrict demonstrations and legislation to protect speech on university campuses — that served as a reminder that, for all its Social Democratic-style spending, Johnson’s party is still conservative.
The policing legislation has ignited angry “Kill the Bill” protests in London and other cities, where demonstrators view it as a way to crack down on legitimate gatherings. In Bristol, protesters lobbed rocks and fireworks at police, which some warned would backfire by stoking public support for the measures.
“Johnson’s going for what’s long been the sweet spot in British politics,” said Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. “Just to the left of center on economics and public provision; quite a long way to the right on pretty much everything else, especially if it has to do with law and order, immigration and now anything that smacks of political correctness gone mad.”
Much of the speech, however, was on more familiar, conciliatory ground. The government promised to “deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before.”
Reading a text prepared by Downing Street, the queen spoke fluently of Johnson’s plans to roll out “5G mobile coverage and gigabit capable broadband” throughout the country. The government will plow money into the National Health Service, a popular measure after it withstood a year of unrelenting pressure from the pandemic and overhaul planning regulations to encourage more construction of single-family houses.
The speech did not directly address perhaps the thorniest challenge facing Johnson: pressure for a second independence referendum in Scotland, where pro-independence parties expanded their majority in the regional Parliament in last week’s election.
The government said only that it would “promote the strength and integrity of the union” — a pledge that is likely to involve pouring more public money into Scotland and putting off the Scottish National Party’s demands to allow a vote.
“The question is, is Boris Johnson right to think that delaying it might help him?” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “This will be the dominating issue of British politics for the next four or five years.”
With strict social distancing rules in place, the ceremony was scaled back and stripped down. The queen was driven from Buckingham Palace in a Range Rover rather than a gilded carriage. She shunned the 18-foot velvet cape and imperial crown that she once wore at state openings in favor of a more sensible lilac coat and hat.
The recent death of Philip also lent the proceedings a wistful atmosphere, even though he had turned over the duties of escorting the queen to Charles a few years ago, after his retirement. Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, watched from the sidelines as Elizabeth sat on a carved wooden throne.
Although missing hundreds of jockeying lawmakers and VIP guests, the ceremony still had its share of otherworldly pomp. The crown, which normally resides in the Tower of London, was paraded through the echoing hallways of the Palace of Westminster on a red velvet pillow rather than on the queen’s head.
Lawmakers were summoned from the House of Commons by the Lady Usher of the Black Rod, who first had the door slammed in her face as a sign of its members’ independence. Johnson and the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, said nothing to each other as they walked, single file and masked, to the House of Lords.
Last week’s elections left the Labour Party in disarray, as Johnson’s Conservative Party made further inroads into Labour’s stronghold in working-class districts in the Midlands and the north of England.
Starmer tried to regain his footing in the debate that followed the ceremony, excoriating the government for not introducing legislation to bolster Britain’s care for older people and those with disabilities. Johnson, he said, had promised to do so 657 days ago.
“Failure to act after a pandemic is nothing short of an insult to a whole nation,” Starmer declared.