King Charles III opened a session of Parliament on Tuesday for the first time as monarch, outlining the British government’s legislative priorities as part of a tradition-steeped ceremony that tested his skill at displaying the political neutrality for which his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was famous.
Drafted by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, but delivered by King Charles, the centerpiece speech is a constitutional oddity — and one with a particular twist this year, as the new sovereign read out a list of government bills that included some policies likely to be sharply at variance with his personal views.
Among those were Mr. Sunak’s plan to exploit more of Britain’s oil and gas reserves in the North Sea. Although the Conservative government argues that it will still meet its targets for Britain to become a net zero emitter of carbon dioxide by 2050, the decision to license more fossil fuel extraction has angered campaigners against climate change — a cause close to the king’s heart for decades.
King Charles made his first major speech about the environment in 1970, at age 21, and in recent years has been an increasingly vocal advocate for climate action. In a speech in France in September, he urged the world to “strive together to protect the world from our most existential challenge of all: that of global warming, climate change and the catastrophic destruction of nature.”
Still, wearing the heavy, jewel-encrusted Imperial State Crown and seated on a throne, King Charles on Tuesday showed the poker face expected of a British monarch as he delivered the “King’s Speech,” an occasion famous less for politics than for protocol, elaborate royal regalia and intricate choreography.
As he announced that one of the government’s bills “will support the future licensing of new oil and gas fields,” there was little hint of royal disapproval in his expression.
The sovereign’s speech to open Parliament “is an oddity we have kept because the ceremonial is part of the monarchy — but the speech itself is just the government setting out its policies. That’s where the weirdness originates,” said Catherine Haddon, program director at the Institute for Government, an independent think tank.
The monarchy’s commitment to political neutrality was consolidated during Elizabeth’s reign, and “everything we have seen suggests that Charles is looking to show continuity,” Ms. Haddon said.
Although this was the first such speech delivered by a king in seven decades, the pomp and pageantry followed a practiced routine. Traveling in a horse-drawn carriage, accompanied by his wife and queen, Camilla, the king arrived at Parliament to a fanfare, then followed the same route within the building to the chamber of the House of Lords that was first taken by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century.
King Charles paid a brief tribute to his mother as he began reading the 10-minute speech.
The government had already confirmed that its legislative plans included offering oil and gas licensing rounds each year, as opposed to the current system where they take place periodically.
The Conservatives, trailing badly in the opinion polls, want to set up a political dividing line with the opposition Labour Party, which has said that it would honor licenses in the North Sea but not grant any new ones if it wins power.
On Monday Downing Street said it saw no contradiction between its proposal and the climate change goals championed by the king. Using British energy resources would allow net zero targets to be achieved in a “pragmatic way that doesn’t burden hard-working families,” Mr. Sunak’s official spokesman said.
This is likely to be the last King’s Speech before the next general election, which must be held by January 2025, and analysts believe the government’s policies are aimed at cementing its core right-wing constituency.
Mr. Sunak’s rethink on climate policy followed his party’s success in a special election for a London parliamentary seat this summer after it campaigned against a measure that charges people more to drive older, more polluting, cars.
The unexpected victory prompted Mr. Sunak to weaken several environmental measures in September when he said he would delay by five years a ban on the sale of gasoline and diesel cars and would also lower targets for replacing gas boilers.
On Tuesday the government announced legislation on crime that aims to ensure that offenders of the most serious offenses will stay in prison for longer and be forced to face their victims in court. It also unveiled legislation to implement a gradual ban on smoking, promised in an earlier speech by Mr. Sunak. Under the proposal it would be illegal to sell cigarettes to those born after January 2009.
Though the Labour Party approves of some of the measures announced on Tuesday, Pat McFadden, its campaign coordinator, told the BBC that the overall list of priorities showed the government had “run out of steam.”
Some Britons are still getting accustomed to the idea of a king delivering a speech that, during her seven-decade reign, was read on 67 occasions by Queen Elizabeth. King Charles was deputized for his mother in May 2022 when she was unable to attend because of her failing health, and read what was known then as the Queen’s Speech.
Elizabeth spent a lifetime observing political neutrality, rarely revealing her personal thoughts on any issue of contention.
But even she could not avoid speculation about her views. When she read the Queen’s Speech in 2017 but did not wear her crown, there were questions about whether the colors of her hat — blue embroidered with a pattern of yellow flowers that to some resembled the European Union flag — were a statement about Brexit.
Last week Buckingham Palace said King Charles would give an opening address at the COP 28 climate meeting, which begins later this month in Dubai. But Ms. Haddon said that the fact that his views on climate change are so well known could make the king more scrupulous in appearing neutral.
Established in the late 14th century, the state opening marks the beginning of the parliamentary year. The modern ceremony dates to 1852, when a rebuilt Parliament reopened after a fire.
Early in her reign, Queen Victoria attended the state opening regularly but that had lapsed by the end of her time on the throne, when she often resisted requests from prime ministers to appear in person.
Her relations with the politicians of the day were not always harmonious, particularly with William Gladstone, a prime minister who, she complained, “speaks to me as if I were a public meeting.” (In contrast, Benjamin Disraeli, a rival who also served as prime minister, flattered and charmed the queen.)
Her successor, King Edward VII, revived the state opening as a ceremonial occasion, including a procession in the state coach through the streets of London.