In a historic moment, Charles III, the 74-year-old monarch, delivered the first King’s Speech in 72 years on Tuesday. The speech marked the formal opening of the UK parliament and outlined the legislative plans of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government as the country gears up for an impending election.
Addressing lawmakers from a golden throne in the House of Lords, Charles emphasized the Conservative Party’s agenda, highlighting the differences between his party and the main opposition Labour Party. However, outside parliament, several dozen protestors voiced their dissent with chants of “Not my king” and “What a waste of money.”
The 10-minute speech comes at a time when the Tories, who have been in power since 2010, trail behind Labour by double digits in most opinion polls. With a general election widely expected next year, the King’s Speech served as a platform for Sunak to present his vision for the country.
Notably, this was Charles’s first address as the head of state, although he had previously deputised for Queen Elizabeth II in May last year. It was also Sunak’s inaugural King’s Speech since assuming office after the short-lived tenure of Liz Truss.
Sunak used the speech to focus on law and order, proposing tougher sentencing guidelines for life terms and an end to early release for certain violent sexual offenders. He also highlighted the diverging environmental and energy policies between his government and Keir Starmer’s centre-left Labour party.
One of the proposals outlined in the speech was a law that would grant new licenses for oil and gas projects in the North Sea annually. Sunak argued that this move would reduce Britain’s reliance on foreign energy and create job opportunities. Interestingly, Charles, who has long been an advocate for environmental causes, delivered this announcement without displaying any personal opinions, adhering to the principle that the monarch remains above politics.
Apart from these key issues, Sunak also proposed a phased smoking ban, previously announced at the Tory conference, and reforms to home ownership laws. The King’s Speech sets the tone for the parliamentary year, providing insights into the government’s legislative agenda for the upcoming months.
While a Conservative defeat in the next election is not a certainty due to their significant parliamentary majority, a loss would potentially derail much of the proposed legislation. Richard Carr, an associate professor in public policy and strategy at Anglia Ruskin University, highlighted the time constraints faced by Sunak, noting that the public has grown both bored and frustrated with Conservative governance.
The state opening of parliament on Tuesday was a grand affair, with the sovereign making the journey from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament in a carriage. The event involved 1,400 members of the armed forces, 124 horses, and marching bands, culminating in a 41-gun salute.
Princess Anne, Charles’s sister, played a ceremonial role in the procession as the King’s “protector,” formally known as Gold Stick in Waiting. In keeping with tradition, an MP was symbolically held “hostage” to ensure the king’s safe return. Prior to the speech, royal bodyguards conducted a ritual search for explosives in the Palace of Westminster basement, a reminder of the failed attempt to blow up parliament in 1605.
The monarch led a procession through the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of parliament, before delivering the speech to lords, ladies in red robes, and invited members of the elected Commons.