The U.K.'s Parliament opens for the first time in six decades without the queen
LONDON — Britain's Conservative government made sweeping promises to cut crime, improve health care and revive the pandemic-scarred economy as it laid out its plans for the next year in a tradition-steeped ceremony in Parliament — but without Queen Elizabeth II, who was absent for the first time in six decades.
The 96-year-old monarch pulled out of reading the Queen's Speech at the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament because of what Buckingham Palace calls "episodic mobility issues." Her son and heir, Prince Charles, stood in, rattling through a short speech laying out 38 bills the government plans to pass.
The speech, which is written by the government, promised Prime Minister Boris Johnson's administration would "grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families."
But it contained few immediate measures to relieve households struggling with soaring prices for domestic energy and food.
As well as bills on education, health care funding and "levelling up" economic opportunity to poorer regions, the speech promised laws aimed at pleasing the government's right-leaning voter base, including promises to seize "Brexit freedoms" by cutting red tape for businesses and overhauling financial services and data regulation now that Britain has left the European Union.
Some of the plans are already strongly criticized by opposition parties and civil liberties groups, including a contentious new law to outlaw disruptive protest tactics favored by groups such as Extinction Rebellion.
Human rights groups also have criticized plans for a British Bill of Rights to replace current rights laws based on the European Convention on Human Rights. Some environmentalists worry that a bill to allow "precision bred plants and animals" opens the door to genetically modified food, which is currently banned.
Johnson said before the speech that its measures would "get our country back on track" and press on with "our mission to create the high wage, high skilled jobs that will drive economic growth across our whole United Kingdom."
In a video message, he said the government's focus was on "growing the economy to address the cost of living."
But there was no specific new relief for soaring grocery and energy bills. Britain's inflation rate has hit 7%, and prices for domestic energy have spiked even higher, as the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions on energy-rich Russia compounded economic disruption from Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government has given most households a 150 pound ($185) tax refund, but has rejected opposition calls for a windfall tax on the profits of big energy firms, saying that could discourage them from investing in U.K. renewable energy projects.
The opening of a new session of Parliament comes days after Johnson's Conservatives suffered a drubbing in local elections across the U.K., losing hundreds of city and regional council seats to opposition parties.
Johnson's personal popularity has been hurt by months of headlines over parties in his office and other government buildings that breached coronavirus restrictions.
Johnson was fined 50 pounds ($62) by police for attending his own surprise birthday party in June 2020 when lockdown rules barred social gatherings.
Johnson has apologized but denies knowingly breaking the rules. He faces the possibility of more fines over other parties, a parliamentary investigation into whether he misled lawmakers about his behavior and a possible no-confidence vote from his own lawmakers.
The state opening ceremony itself is a spectacular pageant steeped in the two sides of Britain's constitutional monarchy: royal pomp and political power. Traditionally the monarch travels from Buckingham Palace to Parliament in a horse-drawn carriage and reads the speech to assembled lawmakers from a golden throne, wearing a crown studded with 3,000 diamonds.
The queen has only missed two previous state openings during her 70-year reign, in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with sons Andrew and Edward, respectively.
This year, Charles travelled to Parliament by car, rather than carriage, and did not wear the crown, which got its own seat. But other symbolic elements were present, including scarlet-clad Yeomen of the Guard and an official known as Black Rod who summoned lawmakers from the House of Commons to the House of Lords.
The ceremony takes place in the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of Parliament, because the monarch isn't allowed to set foot in the House of Commons. Ever since King Charles I tried to arrest lawmakers in 1642 and ended up deposed, tried and beheaded, the monarch has been barred from entering the Commons chamber.
In another symbol of the struggle between Commons and crown, a lawmaker is ceremonially held hostage at Buckingham Palace during the ceremony to ensure the royals' safe return.