The Queen and Cameron outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. (AP)
London, Dec. 18: It was a small drive today for the Queen — barely six or seven minutes from Buckingham Palace to 10, Downing Street — but a giant leap for constitutional historians.
The Queen turned up for a cabinet meeting — the first monarch to do so since George III in 1781 while George I was the last actually to chair a cabinet in 1717. Although hers was little more than a courtesy call in the 60th year of her reign, the monarch’s visit got the sticklers for constitutional propriety all hot and bothered.
This is because the Queen is a constitutional monarch who does not express any opinion on politics but some experts felt she had crossed a red line by attending a cabinet meeting.
Rodney Barker, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics and Political Science, called the visit “inappropriate”. “I think it is daft, it muddies the waters,” he said. “It will mean potentially the Queen will know things she is not supposed to know and hear things she is not supposed to hear. Cabinet meetings, on the whole, are to confirm what has already been agreed but there is some sort of discussion. Presumably they are all going to sit there agreeing and nodding their heads.”
Prof. Jane Ridley, biographer of Edward VII, disagreed with Barker, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today her visit was “testimony of the Queen’s ability to elevate the monarchy above politics”. It was a “constitutional landmark”, she added.
Former cabinet secretary Lord ’Donnell said that he thought the visit was the “right thing to do” — the Queen was above politics.
“I’m sure cabinet want to do this because they want to say thank you,” he added. “I mean, I’ve always viewed the Queen as kind-of the ultimate public servant. You think what she’s done during her jubilee period and they just want to say thank you.”
The Queen arrived at 10.05am, and was greeted on the red carpet outside No 10 by David Cameron, her 12th Prime Minister, the first being Winston Churchill.
Cameron ushered her into the cabinet room filled with senior ministers on their best behaviour. The Queen sat at the green, boat-shaped table devised by Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, to enable him to see all of his cabinet.
The Queen stayed for 40 minutes, sitting in the chair normally occupied by Cameron, with the Prime Minister on her right and the foreign secretary, William Hague, on her left.
In the cabinet room, Cameron extended a “very warm welcome” to her and said: “We think the last time a monarch came to the cabinet was in 1781, during the American War of Independence. But I’m happy to report that relations have improved slightly since then.”
The meeting began with Chief Whip Sir George Young talking about the change to royal succession rules, to allow a first-born girl to become head of state even if she has a younger brother. There were also updates on the forthcoming parliamentary business. The Prime Minister’s spokesman said later: “The Queen was an observer at cabinet. She did speak on two occasions, the first of which was near the end of discussion on parliamentary business, where, I think it’s fair to say, very gently and very humorously, on the section regarding the next Queen’s Speech encouraged it to be on the shorter rather than the longer side. And then on leaving cabinet at around 10.45 she wished them all a very happy Christmas.”
As a gift, the Queen received what Buckingham Palace had suggested – 60 hand crafted table mats, one for each year of her reign, with images of Buckingham Palace.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles told the BBC afterwards: “The Queen seemed very relaxed, in a very good mood and took an enormous interest in the cabinet discussion. I think people were perhaps more considered in what they said, but nevertheless it was a proper discussion on the general economic situation and the inflation figures and Afghanistan.”
He dismissed suggestions that the Queen was crossing a constitutional line by attending the cabinet. “We are her cabinet, we operate for her. .... given it’s her cabinet, she can come any time she wants.”
Escorted by Hague she popped into the Foreign Office just opposite No 10 and heard her foreign secretary announce that the southern part of the British Antarctic Territory has been named Queen Elizabeth Land to mark her diamond jubilee. The territory, covering 169,000 sq miles, is almost twice the size of the UK.
Had India still been ruled from the Foreign Office, as it once was, who knows but the country might have been rebranded Lizland to please her.
Hague, the 22nd person to hold the post of foreign secretary during her reign, said to the Queen: “You embody a life of service to our country, and a lifetime of diplomacy. You have made over 260 official visits to 116 different countries.”