MPs line up to parrot platitudes in tribute to Prince Philip

John Crace

Boris Johnson leads in trotting out the tropes about a polymath with a sense of service and selflessness

Prince Philip
Prince Philip would have been astonished at the number of strangers claiming to have insight into his personality. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
Prince Philip would have been astonished at the number of strangers claiming to have insight into his personality. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

First published on Mon 12 Apr 2021 14.07 EDT

With only a few standard clips – “he leaves a huge void”, “he just slipped away” – on offer from members of the family who actually knew the Duke of Edinburgh, nearly all the eulogies elsewhere in the media have come from professional royal-watchers who have quickly mugged up on HRH’s Wikipedia page. Prince Philip would have been gratified that his real friends had kept their silence and astonished by the number of strangers who claimed to have some insight into his personality.

MPs hate to feel excluded from any national event and so, naturally enough, the House of Commons was recalled a day early from recess to allow the politicians to have their say. Even when they hadn’t really got anything to say. Especially when they really hadn’t got anything to say. So as ever on these occasions, the interest was less in what MPs had to say about the duke and more in what their speeches said about themselves.

It was reported that Boris Johnson had used the first morning of the new easing of lockdown regulations to get his rug cut. If the prime minister had paid for this haircut, he should be asking for his money back. Somehow he managed to look every bit as much of a mess as he had the week before as he got proceedings under way with his speech, which was good insofar as any eulogy about someone you don’t know can be.

Prince Philip was the polymath’s polymath, Boris insisted: scientist, engineer, artist and conservationist rolled into one. Though the evidence for this was rather thin on the ground. A long-wheelbase Land Rover to carry his coffin. A bespoke barbecue for use at Balmoral. A few unexceptional watercolours. His shooting of a tiger back in the early 60s was rather overlooked.

Johnson went on to claim that HRH had invented the term “dontopedalogy” – the science of putting your foot in your mouth – but that it had been less a series of gaffes and more sincere attempts to put people at ease. This was Boris getting in his excuses early. Not so much casual racism, but a Duke of Edinburgh tribute act. He ended by mentioning Prince Philip’s nobler qualities: his sense of duty, service and selflessness. Though even Johnson could see that no one was going to make those sorts of claims about him when the time came.

The Labour leader settled for more of a straightforward obituary, with duty, selflessness and service well to the fore. Keir Starmer is on far stronger ground talking about these qualities than the prime minister. He had even done the Duke of Edinburgh’s award as a teenager. Then there were the familiar themes of engineer, scientist, artist and conservationist. Everyone must have been doing their research for their speeches from the same source. But at least Starmer sounded sincere in his appreciation of the love and devotion in which the Queen and Prince Philip held one another. “Grief is the price we pay for love,” he concluded.

We might as well have left it at that. All that needed to be said had been said, yet still the MPs queued to rehash both the appreciations that had been made over the weekend and ones that had already been made that afternoon. Theresa May, who was treated as having a special insight into the duke for being a former prime minister with a husband called Philip who had played second fiddle to his wife, even told the same anecdote about the special barbecue. You got the feeling the royal family had the same dreary small talk for every prime ministerial visit.

The Maybot is no natural storyteller and even she could tell she was losing her audience when she tried another anecdote about Prince Philip sending her on a walk lasting several hours and only telling her later it was far too long and that he normally drove it. Some might have seen that as a practical joke. May saw it as a sign of selflessness, service and duty. She ended by remembering how once the duke had got dressed up for a formal event though he was only turning up for half an hour. As if he might easily have turned up in his jeans.

There were moments of unintentional humour. A kilted Ian Blackford, who normally never knowingly keeps things short and sweet, recalled how the duke had always been a champion of brevity. Iain Duncan Smith, one of the more untrustworthy, opinionated and disloyal Tory backbenchers of recent years, insisted that Prince Philip would have hated the backstabbing of modern politics. Andrew Selous and Yvette Cooper singled out the duke’s refugee status. As if he had been a penniless asylum seeker rather than a member of the Greek royal family.

Well before the first 90 minutes were up, it felt like we were stuck on repeat. Service, selflessness and duty with a bronze Duke of Edinburgh’s award thrown in. Either the MP’s or, failing that, one of their constituent’s. Had Prince Philip been there to hear any of it, you could be certain he would have zoned out long ago. Or got up and told the chamber he had heard quite enough about him, and that it would make a nice change to hear something about Shirley Williams, whose death had been announced just as the session began.

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