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Lords Diary: Baroness Gisela Stuart

6 May 2023: Coronation of King Charles III, Westminster Abbey | Alamy

4 min read

A day out on a destroyer, attending the coronation – and why Palace of Westminster staff deserve a big thank you

Start the week preparing for an evidence session to the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords. I am warned that the questions in the Lords are tougher than those in the Commons. Having appeared a couple of weeks before in front of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), reflecting on my first 12 months as the first civil service commissioner has helped with the groundwork. The Lords are more interested in the appointment and dismissal of permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants. The civil service commission regulates “entry into” the senior civil service, ensuring it is open, fair and appointments are made on merit. We also audit the entire process so have an interest wider than the top appointments. Last year ministers confirmed that they wanted all senior positions to be advertised internally as well as outside the civil service. Some high-profile cases, like the dismissal of Tom Scholar as permanent secretary to the Treasury last year, created destabilising shock waves.

To mark the coronation, the first sea lord holds a reception and capability demonstration on board HMS Diamond, a Type 45 destroyer, moored on the Thames at Greenwich. I join other honorary captains and we meet our guests for a tour of the ship before we are invited to the flightdeck to witness ceremonial “Sunset” conducted by the ship and the cadet band from the Royal Hospital School.

Being successful in the ballot for tickets to the coronation for the crossbenches has two distinct benefits. I have the honour to be at Westminster Abbey and I don’t have to worry about what to wear. Instructions for coronation day are clear and precise. Arrive from 6.30 to 7.45am in Westminster Hall to be robed; 8.20 final departure time for invited Members, on foot, to be seated in Westminster Abbey; 9am everyone including members of the Cabinet to be seated; 9.30 to 10.45am VIPs to arrive until 11am when their Majesties enter and the service begins.

Who could fail to be impressed by the Lord President of the Council?

Walking past St Margaret’s I fall into conversation with the composer Tarik O’Regan. He is here to witness the performance of his specially commissioned Agnus Dei

A group of MPs and Peers are seated at the Nave Front, having a close view of those entering and leaving. We miss some of the wider context of the occasion but we can catch up on the military parades, the pomp and the crowds. Right now, we witness a public, sacred and deeply personal occasion. 

Some things will stay with me, in a slightly unsettling as well as profound sense. The commitment to duty and the vulnerability, exposed at the moment of anointment, made visible by the removal of the King’s robes. Watching the solitary figures of Prince Andrew and Prince Harry intermingled in the procession of family members demonstrating that even royal families are just families. Not forgetting the deep affection displayed by the Prince of Wales when he swore allegiance and kissed his father, an act both genuine as well as rehearsed. 

And who could fail to be impressed by the Lord President of the Council? Penny Mordaunt’s composure, conduct and outfit, quite rightly attracted well deserved praise from all sides of the political spectrum.

After the service, peers head back to Westminster Hall to return their robes. De-robed we leave the stage, having been privileged to have been present at the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. 

This was just the beginning of the coronation weekend but I am sure that Black Rod, and the entire staff of the Palace of Westminster, breathed a deep sigh of relief. In the last 12 months they had to deal with a State Opening, a Lying-in-State and a funeral – and now a coronation. They were truly brilliant and deserve a big “thank you” from all parliamentarians. 

Baroness Gisela Stuart of Edgbaston is a Crossbench peer

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