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Wed Nov 26 14:39:40 SAST 2014

Queen Elizabeth attends first-ever cabinet meeting

Sapa-AFP | 18 December, 2012 14:40
Britain's Queen Elizabeth is greeted by Prime Minister David Cameron as she arrives at Number 10 Downing Street in London December 18, 2012.
Image by: TOBY MELVILLE / REUTERS

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II attended her first-ever cabinet meeting on Tuesday to mark her diamond jubilee, the only monarch to do so since 1781.

Wearing a royal blue coat and dress, the 86-year-old sovereign was greeted by Prime Minister David Cameron outside the door of his official residence, 10 Downing Street.

The queen received a diamond jubilee gift of 60 placemats from the cabinet to mark her 60 years on the throne and spent half an hour at the meeting as an observer, officials said.

Cameron said it was the first time a monarch had visited a cabinet meeting since king George III in 1781.

The prime minister offered Queen Elizabeth a "very warm welcome" after she took her seat in the middle of the cabinet table, with Cameron to her right and Foreign Secretary William Hague to her left.

"On behalf of everyone, I would like to congratulate you on a fantastic jubilee year," Cameron told her.

Historically, British monarchs used to chair cabinet meetings but while Queen Elizabeth remains head of state her role is largely formal and the monarchy has to remain strictly neutral in political affairs.

Queen Elizabeth has been to Downing Street on numerous occasions during her reign, most recently in July for a diamond jubilee lunch hosted by Cameron and attended by former prime ministers Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major.

Twelve British premiers, the first being Winston Churchill, have served during her 60-year reign but she has never attended a cabinet meeting, where secretaries of state discuss the big issues of the day.

The queen arrived in a limousine with police motorcycle outriders and posed with Cameron in front of the famous black door of 10 Downing Street, next to the prime minister's official Christmas tree.

Several political commentators noted that her Stewart Parvin royal blue wool dress and matching coat - which she wore with a sapphire and diamond broach - was almost identical to the colour frequently worn by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Inside, ministers lined up to shake her hand, with the men bowing their heads and ladies curtseying as a mark of respect, before she was led into the meeting room.

At the start of the meeting Cameron said that her father king George VI had met the cabinet during World War II but added: "We think the last time a monarch came to the Cabinet was in 1781, during the American War of Independence."

Cameron then said they would "crack on with a proper cabinet agenda which starts with the parliamentary business", including a briefing on Britain's struggling economy by finance minister George Osborne.

In a rare step for British politics, the first few minutes of the meeting were televised and showed the queen sitting in silence while Cameron and Chief Whip George Young spoke.

The green, boat-shaped table was introduced by Harold Macmillan, who served as prime minister from 1957 to 1963, to allow him to see all his ministers.

The meeting was expected to last around 90 minutes but after about half an hour the queen left with Hague for a visit to the Foreign Office, which is on the other side of Downing Street.

The queen's political involvement extends to giving a weekly audience to the prime minister at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on government matters. No-one else is present, no notes are taken and the content is never discussed.

"The monarch used to chair cabinet, historically. They no longer do but there is no constitutional bar to attending cabinet, although that right has not been exercised recently," a Buckingham Palace spokesman told AFP.

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