The Queen's Speech: Time-honoured pageant of backbench sarcasm

The Sketch
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE QUEEN'S Speech is about not making too much noise. Obviously its contents are designed to create loud reverberations in the world at large - conveying to voters the satisfying hum of legislative machinery at work. But the delivery in the chamber is a solemnly hushed affair. All those playing-card heralds - including the Maltravers Herald Extraordinary and the Rouge Dragon Pursuivant - and yet not a peep of a fanfare. Apart from mouthing the drab cliches put in her mouth by Number 10, the Queen is required to keep mum; Prince Philip is obliged to button his lip, however strong the urge to hurl a couple of racial slurs at the selection box of ambassadors sitting across from him; and we too must sit in respectful silence.

Down the corridor Black Rod is pounding on the door of the Commons, but not the slightest echo reaches the Lords, where only the faint rustling of whispers betrays the preoccupations of the crowd. Whose hat is bigger - Pauline's or Cherie's? Couldn't the Weatherill amendment have included a clause allowing Jamie Lee Curtis to sit in perpetuity, even if her husband had to be banished as a hereditary? Doesn't Lord Irvine look glam in his black and gold court dress, like a particularly ornate Mont Blanc pen?

When the Commons finally arrived, after a long and fidgety wait, there was some relief from the oppressive silence as the Rough Pleb Sarcastique, an MP appointed to express giggling incredulity on behalf of the rest of us, gave the traditional chortle. He was immediately silenced by a peer with the customary cry of "Shush!", a confirmation that we were here to listen to one voice only.

Lord Irvine approached the throne carrying a large square velvet bag. It looked as if he was inviting the Queen to assist him with a magic trick, but there was no rabbit inside - only the Government's programme of coming attractions, which the Queen commenced to read with as little feeling as was compatible with constitutional decency.

The point of the Commons debate on the Royal Address is quite different - it is to make as much noise as possible, and it starts right away, as Miss Boothroyd works her way through the Sessional Orders. As she invites members to express their disapproval of bribery and witness-tampering they "oohh" and "aahhh" like a well-oiled coach party.

This was really Mr Hague's day though - he's good at the kind of jocular cruelty that goes down well on this occasion, sneaking up under cover of a good joke and then driving a sharp stick in between the ribs. I've long suspected that one of the reasons the Queen is asked to read out the Government's forthcoming legislative programme is because that's the only way to guarantee no one bursts out laughing. Mr Hague confirmed this theory when he read out the promise that "my Government will make it easier for people to take part in elections". Obviously, it's the way he tells them - not a murmur in the Lords when the Queen tried the gag, but here MPs (even some Labour ones) laughed until they were in pain.