As a tribute to the end of the Diamond Jubilee year, the Queen was invited to attend a cabinet meeting on 18 December.
Accepting the PM’s usual seat at Number 10, the Queen joined the meeting for around 30 minutes, seated between David Cameron and William Hague, while the cabinet were updated on a range of forthcoming parliamentary business. It is believed to be the first time a monarch has attended a peace-time cabinet since George III in 1781.
For constitutional purists, the visit may be mildly troubling as it can be seen to muddy the waters of her role in the state. Professor Rodney Barker of the London School of Economics called the event “daft”, claiming the Queen may potentially “know things she is not supposed to know and hear things she is not supposed to hear”.
However, the Queen’s role was as an observer, and cabinet meetings are often simply to confirm what has already been agreed. The Queen and the monarchy must remain strictly neutral in political affairs, therefore her attendance was, for the most part, a symbolic gesture. Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell stated: “I’m sure cabinet want to do this because they want to say thank you,” viewing the Queen as “the ultimate public servant”.
The Queen does after all retain the constitutional right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn, and is kept up to date on political issues during weekly meetings with the prime minister, in which she is able to express her views on government matters.
The idea that the Queen may have been crossing a constitutional line by attending cabinet has been largely dismissed, and while the Queen is head of state, her involvement in daily political decisions is typically formal rather than practical.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles affirmed “We are her cabinet, we operate for her. She was sat in the seat where the prime minister traditionally sits and, given it’s her cabinet, she can come any time she wants”.
Bob Morris of UCL’s Constitution Unit claimed that the visit “shows, in a way, she no longer matters, because no harm’s done.”
What the Queen’s attendance may instead demonstrate is how irrelevant an institution the British monarchy has become in everything other than a symbolic sense.