Coalition governments are so unusual in Britain that Queen Elizabeth, who has known 12 prime ministers since she became sovereign in 1952, has never reigned over a multi-party government until now.
Her appearance at Tuesday’s grandiose State Opening of Parliament showed that whatever the shifts in the political sands, certain British rituals never change.
In accordance with tradition, it fell to the 84-year-old monarch to launch the legislative programme of the new government, an alliance of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who took office this month after an inconclusive election.
The queen arrived by horse-drawn carriage, to the delight of tourists enjoying a sunny day, and walked through the neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament in procession with officials bearing titles such as “Gold Stick in Waiting” and “The Master of the Horse”.
Once seated on her gilded throne in the upper House of Lords chamber, the queen dispatched another official, the Yeoman Usher, to summon members of the lower House of Commons.
The official who normally performs this duty is Black Rod, but he was unwell and so his deputy stood in for him.
In one of the quirkiest traditions, the door to the Commons was slammed in the Yeoman Usher’s face to symbolise the chamber’s independence from the monarch. He was let in only after knocking three times using an ornate rod.
Then some of the members of the Commons including David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, and his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg, made their way to the Lords.
MEN IN WIGS
It was the queen’s 56th state opening, and she appeared unruffled by the novelty of addressing a prime minister and deputy prime minister from different parties.
That may have been because, as custom requires, they stood at the very back of the packed House of Lords chamber during the queen’s speech, mere men in suits who paled in comparison with a dazzling line-up of figures in elaborate ceremonial attire.
In the prime seats were dozens of members of the Lords, resplendent in their red robes with ermine collars.
Among them was Margaret Thatcher, the former Conservative prime minister who shook up Britain in the 1980s with her radical free-market agenda. She is now a baroness and retired from political life.
Others gathered in the gilded chamber included ladies in long gowns and diamond tiaras, “law lords” in black robes and grey wigs, foreign ambassadors in their traditional national dress and members of the royal household in red and gold.
Watching from the wooden galleries above were guests ranging from Samantha Cameron, the prime minister’s wife, to a newspaper vendor, a woman who has tended a nearby kiosk for the last 40 years.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)