The great moment arrives: my audience with The Queen. Foreign ambassadors are received by Her Majesty with elaborate ceremony, which still goes so far as being driven to the Palace in a horse-drawn landau escorted by liveried postilions. However, High Commissioners from nations like Australia of which The Queen is the head of state (‘Realm High Commissioners’) are received with much less pomp and circumstance – one simply drives to the Palace and is met at the entrance – which compensates for lack of grandeur with friendly familiarity. One does not feel like a foreigner.
I am escorted by the Assistant Equerry, a young Captain of the Coldstream Guards gloriously bedecked in Court uniform. We chat for several minutes in the Equerries’ office before the audience begins; in a cut-glass accent, he tells me that before he went to Sandhurst he read Classics. I love the way the English so often conform perfectly to stereotype. Members of the household regiments move seamlessly between ceremonial duties such as this, and traditional soldiering: my escort’s next deployment will be to a combat zone where he will swap his ornamental sword for a machine-gun.
After the obligatory cup of tea, word comes that Her Majesty is ready. I am presented, make my bows, and an official photograph is taken. After that, the staff withdraw and it is just the two of us. The conversation flows smoothly and enjoyably. Naturally, not a word of what was said shall pass my lips. But I can say two things about it. The audience lasted for more than half an hour. And she was wonderful.
I am possibly the least likely person on the entire planet to feature in Hello! magazine. And so it is to my mild astonishment – and to the uncontainable mirth of my daughter – that this unwonted happening takes place. When the official photograph is published on social media by the Palace, some eagle-eyed Royal watcher spots in the background a framed photograph of the newly-wedded Prince Harry and Meghan which had not, apparently, been released to the press. This is the cause of excitement to the editors of Hello! and delight to its starstruck readers. The presence of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s hitherto unseen portrait makes my photograph with The Queen an object of fascination. It ‘trends’ on Twitter. It ‘goes viral’ on social media. I succumb to the irresistible temptation to slip unobtrusively into a newsagency and, in the self-conscious and slightly embarrassed manner of a teenage boy buying a naughty magazine, purchase my very first (and surely last) copy of that august journal.
Boris Johnson hosts the traditional reception for the Queen’s Birthday at Lancaster House. This is one of the fixtures of the diplomatic calendar in London. The Foreign Secretary romps in fresh from a tense day at the House of Commons during which the government has stared down the Brexit rebels, and throws himself into a characteristically robust speech. The recent summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un he describes as ‘the most famous meeting since Buddy Holly met Elvis Presley’. Then, adopting a more serious tone, he delivers a particularly blunt and unsparing rebuke to Russia for the assassination attempt on the Skripals. I happen to be standing in a group which includes the Russian Ambassador – a bonhomous and vaguely cherubic man – and the Ambassador of Monaco, as this spectacular insult is delivered. ‘Poor Aleksandr,’ whispers the Monagasque Ambassador to me. ‘The worst thing I have to worry about is people ringing up to ask if I can arrange to fit their yachts into the harbour at Grand Prix time.’
As a voracious consumer of British political biographies, I won’t pretend that the first time I walk through the famous black door of 10 Downing Street was not a thrill – bigger, even, than going to the White House. I avoid tripping over the cat. Although the frontage is small, the building is deep, and a lot bigger than it looks – larger than the West Wing. On the way to the meeting with the Prime Minister I walk up the famous stairs decorated with stern portraits and photographs of former Prime Ministers all the way back to Walpole, but best known to popular culture by Hugh Grant dancing down them to the strains of The Pointer Sisters. According to the aide who escorts me, everybody in Downing Street nowadays refers to this part of the building as the Love Actually staircase.
Seeing Theresa May again is like seeking an old friend. We had a lot to do with one another, through the Five Eyes community, when she was the Home Secretary – we spent a great deal of time talking about countering violent extremism, in particular – and we found we were likeminded in many ways. It is good to see her again, and our discussion is long and warm. When I first met Theresa, my other counterpart in the British Government was the then Attorney-General Dominic Grieve. Four years later, she is PM while Dominic, now on the backbench, is the leader of the Commons revolt against her Brexit legislation. By a strange twist of fate, the two British politicians I know best are now the chief protagonists in the all-consuming debate which will shape this country’s history for decades – perhaps centuries – to come.
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