Noise and passion drains out of Commons as MPs are told of Queen’s ill-health
It was a moment impossible to forget. A time when icy shards of reality forced their way into the national psyche, and politics had to give way to history. A time we all knew would one day come but had somehow still caught us unawares. The death of the Queen was always something for a tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
The first sign that anything was wrong came early on in the energy debate of the House of Commons. It was about 12.15pm and Keir Starmer was replying to the prime minister’s opening remarks. A continuation of their disagreement at prime minister’s questions the day before over whether the government should impose a windfall tax to part-pay for the £150bn bailout. A necessary and urgent argument that would affect people for years to come. Then, in an instant, it became a news in brief.
Nadhim Zahawi entered the Commons and hovered hesitantly behind the Speaker’s chair. He then had a few words with Lindsay Hoyle before edging his way along the government frontbench to sit down between Liz Truss and the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng.
His arrival initially provoked a few raised eyebrows from the opposition benches – was it possible that last week’s chancellor was better briefed on the energy costs than this week’s chancellor and had come to update the prime minister? – but nothing more. Starmer pressed on, oblivious to the distraction, asking why previous Tory governments had done so little on solar, onshore wind and nuclear energy.
Zahawi passed Truss a note and the pair began an intense conversation. Then the prime minister seemed to send the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster away. As if she had asked him to get more information. The debate continued with Theresa May talking about the benefits of home insulation. She never could pick her moments.
Minutes later, things became more frenetic as Zahawi returned. People had put two and two together. Zahawi was a royal conduit after all. He went back to Truss to update her further before returning to the Speaker’s chair. He passed a note down the Labour frontbench to Angela Rayner. She nodded and informed Starmer, who immediately left the chamber for a few minutes. Meanwhile the press gallery emptied. The rumours had started. The Queen had died. The Queen was dying. For once the rumours turned out to be true.
Truss appeared rooted to the spot. As if unsure of what to do. Of all the things she had dreamed of doing in her first few days in office, this wasn’t one of them. Should she stay or should she go now? This was well above her pay grade. Except it wasn’t. You could sense her telling herself to get a grip.
The rest of those in the know were just grateful the Queen had lived long enough to accept Boris Johnson’s resignation. The last thing the country needed was a narcissistic prime minister who would make a monarch’s death all about him. Starmer returned to his place, his expression giving nothing away.
Hoyle clutched a note of his own, anxiously waiting for Buckingham Palace to release official confirmation of the rapid decline in the queen’s health. When it came, he interrupted the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, to make a short statement. “I know I speak on behalf of the entire house,” he said, “when I say that we send our best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen, and that she and her family are in our thoughts and prayers at this moment.”
After that the Commons all but emptied. All noise and passion spent. For most MPs, a row over how the energy price cap would be paid for could wait another day. And those that did stay, like the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, admitted that their hearts were no longer really in it. Starmer and Truss left together, deep in conversation. This could be one of the less dysfunctional relationships between party leaders.
Truss returned to No 10. First to tweet her sadness about the Queen, then to tweet about the energy price cap. Even on a day like this, she couldn’t quite bring herself to accept that her big policy announcement had been overshadowed. Come the winding up speeches, most of the frontbenches had returned to the Commons. There were a few nervous jokes – with forced laughter at terrible jokes – but no one was really paying attention. Just filling in time. Awkwardly.
When the debate ended, everyone gradually disappeared. Knowing that something seismic was about to happen to the country but with no idea what form the upheaval might take. The Queen had somehow always seemed immanent. Now she was flesh and blood in a state of imminence. Nothing for anyone to do but wait. There would be no miracle. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
After an afternoon of time suspended, in which the minutes seemed to loop back on themselves, the waiting was finally over shortly after 6.30pm. The Queen was dead. Half an hour later, a visibly emotional Truss spoke to the nation from Downing Street. Several times her voice caught on words as she tried to capture the scale of the loss of someone who had been queen for longer than most of us have been alive and had helped to shape the direction of the country.
It was the end of a second Elizabethan era and the beginning of one as yet unknown. As yet undefined. A period of crushing uncertainty. A pillar of our lives had crumbled. There was, perhaps, too much of Truss herself in the speech. We didn’t really need to know that the Queen had been an inspiration to her and that it had been nice to see her on Tuesday. But at least she was trying to connect with the country. Something she has never yet managed to do.
This was a long way from Tony Blair’s speech about Princess Diana, one where the Labour leader caught the mood of the country and made a common grief felt heard. But it was far better than it might have been. The Queen is dead. Long live King Charles III.
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