Wednesday, May 10, 2023

British political trivia: the woman in the teal dress

I watched a few recorded clips from the royal coronation, but didn't stay very long. It was rather stultifying, and all that display of sacred objects that's supposed to be of deep symbolic significance lacked any visual resonance and just looked like guys doing stuff. Especially the archbishop, or whoever it was, trying to get the crown to sit properly on the king's head.

TV announcers who gushed continuously about how wonderful it all looked were strangely reluctant to identify the participants, and I was particularly curious but uninformed about the woman in the striking teal dress who kept marching in front of the king holding up a jeweled sword.

I eventually figured out that this was Penelope "Penny" Mordaunt, who was there because she is Lord President of the Privy Council.

I'm familiar with that title. It's mostly a sinecure, one of several given to UK cabinet officers whose actual duties don't have official titles attached to them. The Lord President is usually the floor leader of the House of Commons, and that's what Mordaunt actually does all day. But she also has the nominal job of convening the Council - which normally meets with a minimum quorum to record the monarch's assent to legislation - and that's put her in the spotlight in the regal hour.

The Privy Council is nominally the body of the sovereign's political advisors. The oath of membership is essentially a security clearance to discuss confidential government matters, so all cabinet officers have to be members. Membership is also permanent (unless removed for dire misbehavior), which is why all the living former prime ministers were lined up in the front row at the accession council which declared Charles king.

(left to right: Keir Starmer (not PM yet), Tony Blair (1997-2007), Gordon Brown (2007-2010), Boris Johnson (2019-2022), David Cameron (2010-2016), Theresa May (2016-2019), John Major (1990-1997). What a depressing display.)

Mordaunt had actually been appointed by Liz Truss on the day the old queen died, so she was in place just in time to preside over this.

That the Lord President also has a major ceremonial role at the coronation I had not known. The last Lord President to do this must have been the 5th Marquess of Salisbury in 1953, who under his previous title of Lord Cranborne was for some years Anthony Eden's right-hand man at the Foreign Office. Mordaunt is not the first woman to hold the post, but she is the first to occupy it during a coronation.

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