It’s the question that has taxed loyal subjects through the centuries. What do you give the monarch who has everything? On the face of it, 60 place mats for the smaller dinner party, even if gold-edged prints of as many different views of her London palace, seems a slightly pedestrian answer.
But that’s what the Queen wanted. And the mats, made by the Gloucestershire firm of Lady Clare (product placement to die for) are “heat-resistant to 100 degrees”, according to a Downing Street briefing that was long on irrelevant details and short on the really gripping stuff. Like what she said to George Osborne before she became the first sovereign since George III (before he went mad and when Britain was losing the American War of Independence) to attend a Cabinet.
Luckily an army of audio technicians and lip-readers was deployed to deconstruct bits of the tastefully muted video of David Cameron introducing his ministers to the sovereign before she heard ministers discuss the Justice and Security Bill, Afghanistan and (of course) the new law on royal primogeniture.
After accepting a deep curtsey from Theresa May, she moved on to Osborne, who saw no need to bow (save for a perfunctory nod after the handshake). Given that Osborne’s paternal ancestors hail from what his biographer calls the “clammy sod” of Wexford and Tipperary, it’s tempting to think this an act of Irish crypto-nationalism – even though the first Osborne baronets were fully paid up members of the Protestant ascendancy.
Cameron had forgotten to remind Her Maj who the Chancellor was. “Someone?” she asked. If you’ve been introduced to about a million people during your six decades on the throne, such lines come easily. But several of the nearby Secretaries of State unleashed peals of laughter as if it was the best joke they had heard in years. According to forensic study of the footage she then proceeded to ask Osborne – at one point using the word “regrettable” –about the sale of “gold bars”.
“Some of them were sold,” Osborne politely acknowledged, “but we still have some left.”
This was a faint echo of her third PM’s (Macmillan) complaint that her eighth (Thatcher) had sold the “family silver”. But given that he sold gold reserves and created a financial services authority which she remarked on her recent visit to the Bank of England lacked “teeth”, this also raises the question of whether the Queen has got it in for her 11th, Gordon Brown.
If so, it’s unlikely to be – despite the bright blue coat she sported yesterday – because of excessive partisanship. Her relationship with Harold Wilson, according to the late Ben Pimlott, who wrote the best biographies of both, was rather warmer than with either Margaret Thatcher or Edward Heath.
Although royal experts were wheeled out yesterday to spout the usual guff about how non-political she is, if you’ve had intimate weekly audiences with prime ministers for as long as she has – her first PM, Churchill, was the last to have led a coalition government – you can’t fail to have a view or two. After all, she played a still much debated role in 1963 in replacing Macmillan with another, Douglas-Home –as it happens, the last two old Etonians to hold the office before Cameron. You don’t have to be a monarchist to wonder what she really thinks of the present lot.