LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hoping to use the opening of the British Parliament on Tuesday to galvanize his government’s agenda after scoring victories in England’s regional elections last week. But the spotlight, at least initially, fell on Queen Elizabeth II, who has appeared in public for the first time since the funeral of her husband Prince Philip last month to manage the age-old pageantry.
Accompanied by her son and heir, Prince Charles, the Queen, 95, presided over a ceremony stripped of coronavirus restrictions. But her voice was firm and steady as she read the Queen’s speech, in which Mr Johnson’s government laid out an ambitious program to ‘level’ the economically depressed north of England with the more prosperous south.
It was the 67th opening of Parliament by the Queen and a reassuring sign of continuity for the British constitutional monarchy. For Mr Johnson, it was a chance to bring some semblance of normalcy back to politics, after the Brexit turmoil and a pandemic that crippled the country, killing more than 125,000.
Mr Johnson has indicated that he intends to continue playing a dominant role in the political arena, proposing to abolish a law that restricts his ability to call a general election. As the government reaps credit for Britain’s rapid vaccine rollout and the prospect of an economic boom after the lockdown, analysts said Mr Johnson could decide to call an election a year earlier, in 2023, to better take advantage of the good news.
The government also proposed that voters be required to show ID at polling stations, which some opposition parties have criticized as a cynical effort to crack down on voter turnout. It was one of many measures that included increasing funding for the National Health Service, after a year of relentless pressure; tougher crime laws; changes in town planning regulations to encourage more house building; and an overhaul of the asylum system.
The government, the speech said, “would ensure a national recovery from the pandemic which makes the UK stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before”. While reading a text prepared by Downing Street, the Queen spoke fluently of Mr Johnson’s plans to roll out “5G mobile coverage and gigabit compatible broadband” across the country.
For decades, Prince Philip accompanied his wife to the opening of Parliament, although in recent years Charles has taken her place. Philip’s recent death has given the proceedings a more melancholy and austere atmosphere than usual.
The Queen avoided the 18-foot velvet cape and imperial crown she once wore at state openings in favor of a more sensitive lilac coat and hat. Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, watched from the hallway as Elizabeth gave what amounted to an abbreviated State of the Union speech.
Although hundreds of lawmakers and VIP guests are missing due to Covid restrictions, the openness of the state has always been very auspicious. The crown, which normally resides in the Tower of London, was paraded through the echoing halls of the Palace of Westminster on a red velvet pillow, even though it did not rest on the Queen’s head.
Mr Johnson was summoned from the House of Commons by the Usher of the Black Rod, who first had the door slammed in her face as a sign of her members’ independence. Mr Johnson and Opposition Leader Keir Starmer took their places before the Queen, seated on a carved wooden throne.
The two leaders said nothing to each other as they walked, single file and masked, towards the House of Lords. Last week’s election left Labor in disarray, as Mr Johnson’s Tory Party made further forays into the Labor stronghold in the working-class districts of the Midlands and northern England.