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Explainer

King's Speech

The King's Speech is part of the State Opening of Parliament, the formal beginning of each new session of Parliament.

The 2023 King's Speech was held on 7 November 2023 and opened what will be the final session before the next general election.

What is a King's Speech and when is it delivered?

The King’s Speech is part of the State Opening of Parliament, the formal beginning of each new session of parliament. No substantive parliamentary business in either the House of Commons or House of Lords can usually occur until after the speech is delivered. Known formally as the ‘Speech from the Throne’, it was previously referred to as the Queen’s Speech, but following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September 2022 the State Opening of Parliament is now conducted by the King.

Sessions of parliament usually last for around a year, meaning that a Queen’s, or now King’s, Speech tends to be held annually. However, an unusual two-year-long session in 2010/12 meant there was no Queen’s Speech in 2011, and the two-year 2017/19 session meant that no Queen’s Speech was held in 2018.

Following the December 2019 general election, a Queen’s Speech was held to mark the first session of the new parliament. That session lasted until April 2021, and the last session began with a Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021. The 2021/22 session ended with the prorogation of parliament on 28 April, and the Queen’s Speech, conducted by the then-Prince Charles, was held on 10 May 2022.

Due to Covid restrictions, some ceremonial aspects of the 2021 Queen's Speech were different from usual – for example, there were fewer people present.

Why is the King's Speech important?

Procedurally, the ‘Speech from the throne’ allows parliament to begin a new session and start its business. It is also symbolic of the role of the monarch in the constitution.

Politically, the King’s Speech is important because it is a test of a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons – especially if it is at the beginning of a new parliament, or if a new government has recently taken over. If a government has a majority in the Commons, then a King’s Speech is unlikely to cause it many headaches; but for governments with only narrow majorities, or who are governing as minorities, it can be more of a test. Historically, passing the vote following the speech and the subsequent debates was an important test of whether a government commanded confidence in the Commons.

The King’s Speech also matters because it allows the government to set out its priorities and programme for the coming session, including the legislation that it intends to pass.

Who writes the King's Speech and what does it contain?

The speech is written for the sovereign by the government. Customarily, it is delivered by the sovereign in a neutral tone, so as not to convey any sense of their views. It is also generally expected that the speech will be listened to by MPs and peers in silence.

The speech lists the legislation that the government intends to introduce to parliament, and reference is also usually made to “other measures” that the government will bring forward – this is to give the government flexibility to introduce other bills as the session goes on.

The sovereign will also list any state visits that they plan to make, and any overseas heads of state who have been invited to the UK over the course of the session.

Can anybody other than the King deliver the speech?

Yes. Prior to 2022, Queen Elizabeth II was not present at two openings of parliament in 1959 and 1963 – in both cases as she was in the late stages of pregnancy. On these occasions, the speech was read on the Queen’s behalf by the lord chancellor and the opening of parliament happened through a royal commission appointed by the sovereign.

On 9 May 2022 it was announced that the Queen would not be present at the opening of parliament the following day. However, the way that the Queen’s absence was dealt with in 2022 differed from previous occasions on which she was unable to attend.  

For the opening of parliament on 10 May 2022, the then-Prince of Wales delivered the speech and took part in the ceremonial aspects of the day, along with the then-Duke of Cambridge Prince William. They did this as ‘counsellors of state’, a position held by a small number of senior royals to whom the Monarch can delegate certain functions. For the Prince of Wales to exercise the specific function of opening parliament, Letters Patent were issued under the terms of the 1937 Regency Act. Under the terms of the Regency Act, counsellors of state are required to act in pairs, and for this reason Prince William accompanied his father to the opening of parliament.

This was the first time a counsellor of state opened a new session of parliament – although counsellors of state have previously been delegated other responsibilities, for example while the Queen was on a visit to Malta in 2016.

Enabling the Prince of Wales to open parliament as a counsellor of state meant that the ceremonial aspects of the day were changed far less than they would have been if parliament were opened through a royal commission.

Separately, on other occasions during the Queen’s reign, ceremonial aspects of the day were scaled back for other reasons – for example, during the Covid pandemic.

What happens before the speech?

The day of the King’s Speech traditionally begins with the Yeoman of the Guard – effectively the sovereign’s bodyguard – conducting a ceremonial search of the basement of the Houses of Parliament, a tradition that dates back to the 16th century ‘gunpowder plot’ of Guy Fawkes. 

On the morning of the speech, the monarch processes to the Houses of Parliament from Buckingham Palace. On arrival, he uses an entrance specially reserved for the monarch – the Sovereign’s Entrance – and heads to the Robing Room, where he dons the crown and robe of state. The King then leads a procession to the throne in the House of Lords, passing through the Royal Gallery where guests are watching.

A parliamentary official known as Black Rod is then sent to the House of Commons to summon MPs to go to the Lords and watch the speech. Traditionally, the door of the Commons is shut in the face of Black Rod, who bangs the door three times before they are allowed in. This dates to the era of the Civil War, and symbolises the independence of the Commons from the monarch.

Once Black Rod has been allowed into the Commons chamber, MPs are summoned to the Lords, and process through parliament to stand at the Bar of the House in the Lords (a point beyond which non-members of the Lords cannot cross).

Separately, it is tradition that one government MP – usually a whip who bears the title of Vice Chamberlain of the Household – is ‘held hostage’ in Buckingham Palace while the King is in parliament, to ensure the monarch’s safe return.

What happens after the speech?

After listening to the speech in the Lords, MPs return to the Commons, and both Houses of Parliament take a short break until later that afternoon. When they resume sitting, the Speaker in each House formally reports on the King’s Speech and orders the text of it to be printed into the official record.

Each House then proceeds to give a purely symbolic formal first reading to two specific bills: the Outlawries Bill in the Commons, and the Select Vestries Bill in the Lords. Neither of these bills are ordered to be printed or to proceed to their second reading, as they are not actually intended to ever become laws nor to serve any practical purpose. Instead, they are designed to show that each House can consider other matters before it turns to debating the King’s Speech – another way of emphasising their independence from the sovereign.

How is the King's Speech debated and voted on?

Debate over the content of the King’s Speech formally occurs on a humble address to the King, thanking him for his speech – usually referred to as ‘the Loyal Address’. The debate begins after the speech is delivered, and usually continues for several days.

In the Commons, a motion is moved and seconded by two government backbenchers who are, traditionally, from very different constituencies and parliamentary intakes. Their short speeches are, by tradition, humorous and non-contentious. The leader of the opposition then makes a speech, at which point the more substantive part of the debate begins. The prime minister responds, and gives more detail on the government’s plans.

In the Lords, a motion making the address to the King is also moved and seconded. The leader of the opposition in the Lords then moves a motion to adjourn the debate, which peers use to hold a general, short discussion on the content of the King’s Speech.

Both Houses then adjourn, or break, until the next sitting day, when debate on the address continues.

Subsequent days

In recent years, debate over the King's Speech in the Commons has tended to take place over six sitting days. Each subsequent day’s debate centres around a theme, such as foreign affairs or health, which is usually chosen by the leader of the opposition.

Debate is opened and closed each day by the relevant ministers and shadow ministers. Debates on subsequent days in the Lords also focus on a different theme each day as chosen by the opposition.

Can the Loyal Address be amended or voted down?

Yes – it is possible for the address to the King to be amended.

In the Commons

Any MP can table an amendment to the address, or sign an amendment tabled by another MP in order to show their support. These can only be debated and voted on during the final two days of debate, as set out in Standing Order No. 33 of the Commons’ rules, with the Speaker able to choose a maximum of four amendments for debate.

One amendment, usually in the name of the official opposition, is usually debated and voted on during the penultimate day of debate. Up to three further amendments can then be selected by the Speaker on the final day of debate. One of these will be tabled by the opposition; once that has been dealt with, any remaining amendments are voted on ‘forthwith’ – meaning without debate. This procedure came into formal operation in 2014, when Standing Order No.33 was changed following the Speaker’s controversial decision, the previous year, to allow three amendments on the final day of debate, where previously only a maximum of two had ever been selected.

Sometimes, even the threat of an amendment can be enough to force the government to change course. In 2017, an amendment tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy, with cross-party support, led to the government changing its stance on women from Northern Ireland seeking abortions in England. The government did this before the amendment was formally voted on.

In the Lords

Although the House of Lords may also debate the address for several days, it is customary that no votes are held at the end of their debates. This means that the Lords have no opportunity to amend or vote down the address.

What happens if the government is defeated?

The King's Speech can be voted down. This would be of major political significance, as it would clearly call into question the ability of the government to command the confidence of parliament. Historically, a defeat on the address has been treated as an implicit loss of confidence in a government as it suggests that there is no majority to be found in the Commons for its programme for government.

It is rare for the government to be defeated on the address in the Commons – as governments usually have a majority in the House. But it has happened – most recently in 1924, when Stanley Baldwin’s minority government was defeated. Baldwin then resigned as prime minister, and the opposition went on to form a new government.

What happens to other parliamentary business while the Loyal Address is being debated?

Substantive parliamentary business cannot begin until the new session has formally opened, following the delivery of the King’s Speech.

In the Commons, ministers can make statements, the regular schedule of oral questions can begin, and the government can begin to introduce bills. Secondary legislation can also be considered – but the time allocated to the debate on the address takes precedence. However, the debate on the address can be temporarily postponed in order to deal with urgent business – which last happened in 2006 with an emergency bill relating to Northern Ireland – or interrupted by an emergency debate held under Standing Order Number 24.

However, ways and means motions, which relate to money, and Westminster Hall debates cannot be held until the end of debates on the address unless MPs vote to suspend existing rules. This means that a budget cannot be held until after the debate on the address has finished.

Publisher
Institute for Government

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