The Queen becomes first monarch to attend cabinet since the 18th century, in a move both welcomed and criticised as an inappropriate blurring of the lines between the government and monarchy.
The Queen took her seat next to Prime Minister David Cameron at the Number 10 table in a visit arranged to mark her Diamond Jubilee. She was an observer rather than participant in policy debate, but it was still a step too far for Rodney Barker, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics.
“The monarch has to be seen as totally outside the normal political process. She reigns but she doesn’t rule,” Professor Barker said in an interview with Channel 4 News. He had earlier declared the visit, “inappropriate” and “daft” in that it “muddies the waters”.
Professor Barker said the role of the sovereign was to be apolitical, to advise on the impact of policy but not participate in political horse-trading behind closed doors.
“At least formally, she has to be at the policy impact end of things, not the policy generating end of things,” Professor Barker said.
While the head of state performs ceremonial and formal duties such as the state opening of parliament, Professor Barker and others believe the monarch is to remain neutral on political matters.
Not everyone agrees. Lord O’Donnell, former Cabinet secretary, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that it was entirely appropriate for the Cabinet to say thank you to the Queen as “the ultimate public servant”.
“This is right for her to be doing this. I think it is exactly the right thing and it shows she would have done this whichever party had been in power.”
In any case, the Queen was not at the sharp end of political debate today.
The Queen was there by invitation rather than by request, and she was shown into the room by Mr Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Mr Cameron congratulated her on her “fantastic” Diamond Jubilee year.
She took her seat between Mr Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague for the weekly discussion of government business.
She visited for 30 minutes and left before the end of the meeting to fulfil other diary commitments, including a visit to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
The Queen did not speak during opening remarks, but posed outside with Mr Cameron in her Stewart Parvin royal blue wool dress and matching coat, with a sapphire and diamond broach.
While there are different historical opinions, Mr Cameron said the last monarch to visit the cabinet was believed to have been George III in 1781.
Historian Jane Ridley, biographer of Edward VII, told BBC Radio there was no clear evidence Queen Victoria sat in on Cabinet, as initially thought, although she occasionally wrote a furious letter to be read out in cabinet.
As for the Queen’s visit today, Ms Ridley said: “If she was a party political figure, of course, it would be a political act for her to be there today – but she isn’t.”