Gunpowder, robes and ritual: Key Brexit week kicks off with Queen's speech

Yeomen of the Guard perform ahead of the State Opening of Parliament in the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday. Copyright TOBY MELVILLE
By Alexander Smith with NBC News World News
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The state opening of Parliament is about as flamboyant as it gets, with ceremonies dating back 400 years.


LONDON — The United Kingdom is embarking on a frantic and potentially decisive week inBrexit negotiations, one that could shape the country's future for decades.

But — Britain being Britain — there was still time for some wildly ostentatious pomp and ceremony first.

Monday marks the state opening of Parliament, a formal procession where the government sets out the legislative agenda for the coming parliamentary term.

This is about as about as flamboyant as it gets: bodyguards searching for gunpowder, 350-year-old robes, a lawmaker being held hostage as part of an ancient mock kidnapping, and a high-ranking official having the door of the House of Commons slammed in her face.

Behind the stage door however there is serious political maneuvering taking place.

Brexit talks are talks are ongoing in Brussels, Belgium, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he can conjure a Brexit divorce deal acceptable to both European leaders and British lawmakers. This is no mean feat given that the stated red lines of both parties directly contradict each other.

If there is to be a deal, it appears someone will have to budge before the end of this week, when E.U. leaders meet to pass or reject any deal at a high-stakes summit.

Then there will be a rare weekend session of the U.K. Parliament, its first sitting on a Saturday since the Falklands War between the U.K. and Argentina in 1982, where lawmakers will be asked to ratify the deal.

Both the U.K. and E.U. disagree on how to solve the problem of Northern Ireland, which would suffer greatly in the event if a "no-deal" Brexit.

Johnson's initial plan was rejected, but a meeting last week with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, produced a modicum of hope a deal can be achieved.

The Queen's Speech is delivered by Queen Elizabeth II but is actually written by the government announcing its policy agenda.

In reality, Johnson does not have enough power in Parliament to achieve any of the aims she will outline — meaning the U.K. is almost certainly headed for an election soon.

The prime minister also wants to hammer home his core message ahead of a likely election in the coming months. His platform hinges on an uncompromising Brexit stance, a tougher line on law enforcement, and more money for Britain's free state-run health service.

Before policy comes pageantry. The day was kicked off by the queen's bodyguard leading a torch-lit search for gunpowder in the basement of the House of Commons. This dates to 1605 when a group of Catholics failed in a plot to blow up Parliament and kill the Protestant King James I.

The arcane rituals don't stop there. Before the queen was able to leave Buckingham Palace for Parliament, one lawmaker was held hostage at the royal residence to ensure the monarch's safe return. This oddity is a nod to King Charles I, whose fractious relationship with Parliament ultimately led to the English Civil War and his own beheading in 1649.

When the queen finally left the palace, she did so by horse-drawn coach, and later dons a crimson velvet and ermine robe.

She usually wears the Imperial State Crown, a hefty 2.3 lbs thanks to its 2,868 diamonds and hundreds of other precious stones — although these days she leaves it on its own table rather than wears it.

View this post on InstagramA closeup of The Imperial State Crown - which was originally made for King George VI’s coronation in 1937. It is closely based on a crown designed for Queen Victoria in 1838. It incorporates many gemstones, including the diamond known as the Second Star of Africa, the Black Prince's Ruby, the Stuart Sapphire, St Edward's Sapphire and Queen Elizabeth's Pearls.

A post shared by The Royal Family (@theroyalfamily) on May 18, 2016 at 2:43am PDT

The queen doesn't enter the House of Commons, thank to Charles I's somewhat testy relationship with that chamber. So elected lawmakers are summoned to the Lords by a senior official known as "Black Rod, real name Sarah Clarke. As part of the ceremony, she has the Commons door slammed in her face, and is only allowed to enter after three knocks with her eponymous black and gold staff.


Eventually, the queen delivers the speech from her throne. The packed chamber includes periwigged judges and other members wearing robes that are themselves hundreds of years old in some cases.

Lawmakers will then get down to the business of debating the government's policies — which, this being 2019, will probably revolve mostly around Brexit.

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