What did UK Parliament look like after the Queen's death? - opinion

While parliament has been shut to all external visitors, including the press, I have had the privilege of seeing this monumental moment unfold up close.

 ‘I SAW Liz Truss step out of her civil service-provided black-tinted Range Rover, look dead ahead into a packed Westminster Hall filled with former prime ministers, and stride ahead to take her place,’ says the writer. (photo credit: SAM KAHN)
‘I SAW Liz Truss step out of her civil service-provided black-tinted Range Rover, look dead ahead into a packed Westminster Hall filled with former prime ministers, and stride ahead to take her place,’ says the writer.
(photo credit: SAM KAHN)

I’m a parliamentary researcher. I work for a member of parliament. That means I go into the House of Commons every day to do anything from making coffee to briefing my boss on meetings and interviews. But this week, it has meant that I have had a front row seat to a once-in-a-generation event, the death of Her late Majesty, The Queen. While parliament has been shut to all external visitors, including the press, I have had the privilege of seeing this monumental moment unfold up close.

I have been able to watch as MPs and their researchers found out the news, listen to the new prime minister and MPs pay tribute to the Queen in the House of Commons viewing gallery, as well as watch the new King arrive in Westminster Hall to address parliament. 

Last Thursday, we were at a drinks reception for parliamentary researchers when we heard that the Queen had passed. Staff was chattering away about their opinions on the latest political issue of the day. Then the room went silent. People glanced at their phones, and then up at their neighbors. After a few moments, a man raised his glass and announced, “The Queen,” while the rest of the room responded, “The Queen” in a unanimous sort of call and response

The pubs in parliament were then closed, and staff were told to go home, as the police on the parliamentary estate prepared for a security operation, that a former counter-terror chief referred to as “the biggest the UK has ever seen.” 

 Queen Camilla and Britain's King Charles attend the Accession Council at St James's Palace, where he is formally proclaimed Britain's new monarch, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, in London, Britain September 10, 2022. (credit: VICTORIA JONES/POOL VIA REUTERS) Queen Camilla and Britain's King Charles attend the Accession Council at St James's Palace, where he is formally proclaimed Britain's new monarch, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, in London, Britain September 10, 2022. (credit: VICTORIA JONES/POOL VIA REUTERS)

The biggest security operation the UK has ever seen

In preparation for a visit from the King, police officers dressed in blue jumpsuits ab-sailed up to the top of the Palace of Westminster to carry out security checks. The days that followed have been filled with a sense that I must take everything in.

The next day, Friday, was time for MPs to pay tribute to the Queen in the House of Commons Chamber. I was lucky enough to sit in the chamber to listen and take in the atmosphere.

ON MY walk over to the Commons, I passed Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial former leader of the Labour Party, who surprisingly, given his reputation as a scruffily dressed republican, was dressed immaculately in a black suit and tie out of respect for Her Late Majesty.

UK Prime Minister Liz Truss's tribute to the Queen

These tributes were an opportunity for the different characters around Westminster to seize on this tragic moment and enhance their own reputations. In 1997, when Princess Diana died, former prime minister Tony Blair, capitalized astonishingly. With his speech, he summed up the national mood in a way that would win the affection of the country. 

His words, “I feel like everyone else in this country today. I am utterly devastated,” bridged the distant gap between the private mourning of the royal family, and the yearning need for the public to feel involved in this very public loss.

The new Conservative Prime Minister, Liz Truss, hoped to do the same. The problem for her, however, was that she is Liz Truss, not Tony Blair. Public speaking is not her strong suit. Her speech was delivered in her characteristically wooden style, as she read it from her typed notes.

But at the big moments, she was still able to elicit a “hear, hear” from her colleagues, as well as an occasional laugh. And when she finished with, “God save the King,” I felt shivers down my spine

Members from across the House supported her. I saw Michael Gove, the Conservative MP and Truss’s internally fractious enemy, standing at the back of the Conservative benches; and across the chamber, Ed Miliband, another former leader of the Labour Party. Both were nodding their heads in agreement during her speech. 

Theresa May and Boris Johnson's tributes to the Queen

The Queen’s death has also done a lot for the reputation of the two former prime ministers currently sitting in the House of Commons, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. In their respective tributes to the Queen, May and Johnson both struck the perfect tone. 

Their status as backbench MPs meant that they were freed from any political constraints and were able to deliver genuinely funny and touching speeches. The performances felt more at home in a family eulogy than in an address to parliament.

In one anecdote, May talked about how her audiences with the Queen were the only meetings that she knew would not be briefed to the media. This was by far the biggest laugh of the day, and I caught the moment when Johnson heard that line. His guilty laughter felt very revealing.

THEN CAME Johnson’s speech – the one we had all been waiting for. I can’t tell you how strange it was to see him in an obscure corner of the Commons, instead of being his brash self at the despatch box. 

He talked about how at her Balmoral estate, the Queen drove herself in her own car, with no detectives and no bodyguard, bouncing at alarming speed over the Scottish landscape, to the total amazement of the ramblers and tourists she encountered. Even Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, who just months ago was pointing her finger and hurling vexed questions at Johnson, was bouncing in her seat, cackling at his stories.

Then on Monday, I waited outside Westminster Hall for the new King to arrive in his car and address parliament. It felt surreal to watch the  “King’s Body Guards” dressed in red coats and tights, accompanied by a golden staff, practice as they awaited their big moment. In one of their rehearsals, I heard a body guard accidentally call for “Her Majesty The Queen,” instead of “His Majesty The King,” who he would be welcoming shortly.

I saw May strut by in her purple-backed heels, negotiating with the uneven cobbled road. Finally, I saw Truss step out of her civil service-provided black-tinted Range Rover, look dead ahead into a packed Westminster Hall filled with former prime ministers, and stride ahead to take her place.

This past week has been an immediate and sudden shift away from the cut and thrust of Westminster politics. In a week that would have been dominated by heated debate and political jibes about the government’s response to the cost-of-living crisis, instead, politicians have been performing at various royal ceremonies, putting on their most dignified faces for days of constitutional pageantry.

I don’t know if it is all necessary, but it is certainly unique, and a fascinating experience to watch the pomp and circumstance ensue.

The writer is a parliamentary researcher who works for a Labour MP.