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Brexit: Queen's speech in Parliament kicks off crucial week of negotiations

The state opening of Parliament is about as flamboyant as it gets, with ceremonies dating back 400 years.

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By Alexander Smith

LONDON — The United Kingdom is embarking on a frantic and potentially decisive week in Brexit negotiations, one that could shape the country's future for decades.

But — Britain being Britain — there was still time for some wildly ostentatious pomp and ceremony first.

Monday marked the state opening of Parliament, a formal procession where the government set out the legislative agenda for the coming parliamentary term.

This was about as about as flamboyant as it gets: bodyguards searching for gunpowder, 350-year-old robes, a lawmaker being held hostage as part of an ancient mock kidnapping, and a high-ranking official having the door of the House of Commons slammed in her face.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, leave after the queen's speech during the State Opening of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster on Monday.Leon Neal / Getty Images

Behind the stage door however there is serious political maneuvering taking place.

Brexit talks are ongoing in Brussels, Belgium, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he can conjure a Brexit divorce deal acceptable to both European leaders and British lawmakers. This is no mean feat given that the stated red lines of both parties directly contradict each other.

If there is to be a deal, it appears someone will have to budge before the end of this week, when E.U. leaders meet to pass or reject any deal at a high-stakes summit.

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Then there will be a rare weekend session of the U.K. Parliament, its first sitting on a Saturday since the Falklands War between the U.K. and Argentina in 1982, where lawmakers will be asked to ratify the deal.

Both the U.K. and E.U. disagree on how to solve the problem of Northern Ireland, which would suffer greatly in the event if a "no-deal" Brexit.

Johnson's initial plan was rejected, but a meeting last week with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, produced a modicum of hope a deal can be achieved.

On Monday, the Queen's Speech was delivered by Queen Elizabeth II — although the speech itself is actually written by the government as a way to announce its policy agenda.

"My Government's priority has always been to secure the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union on 31 October," she said, reading the government's words. "My Government intends to work towards a new partnership with the European Union, based on free trade and friendly cooperation."

In reality, Johnson does not have enough power in Parliament to achieve any of the aims, however — meaning the U.K. is almost certainly headed for an election soon.

Aside from an uncompromising Brexit stance, other policies announced by the government through the queen included tougher jail sentences and stricter immigration controls.

But before policy came pageantry. The day was kicked off by the queen's bodyguard leading a torch-lit search for gunpowder in the basement of the House of Commons. This dates to 1605 when a group of Catholics failed in a plot to blow up Parliament and kill the Protestant King James I.

The arcane rituals didn't stop there. Before the queen was able to leave Buckingham Palace for Parliament, one lawmaker was held hostage at the royal residence to ensure the monarch's safe return. This oddity is a nod to King Charles I, whose fractious relationship with Parliament ultimately led to the English Civil War and his own beheading in 1649.

It's this historic tension — ensuring the sovereign does not exceed their power and encroach on the duties of Parliament — that underpins much of the formalities on display.

When the queen finally left the palace, she did so by horse-drawn coach flanked by more ceremonial bodyguards on horseback. Her royal regalia, the Imperial State Crown, the Cap of Maintenance and the Sword of State, traveled in their own coach out ahead.

Once there, she changed into the Robe of State, which features an 18-foot-long velvet train that weighs more than 15 lbs. She used to wear the Imperial State Crown, which comes in at a hefty 2.3 lbs thanks to its 2,868 diamonds and hundreds of other precious stones — although these days she leaves it on its own table.

The queen doesn't enter the House of Commons, owing to Charles I's somewhat testy relationship with that chamber. So elected lawmakers were instead summoned to the Lords by a senior official known as "Black Rod," real name Sarah Clarke. As part of the ceremony, she had the Commons door slammed in her face, and was only allowed to enter after three knocks with her eponymous black and gold staff.

Eventually, the queen delivered the speech from her throne. The packed chamber included periwigged judges and other members wearing robes that are themselves hundreds of years old in some cases.

Lawmakers then got down to a day of debating the government's policies — which, this being 2019, will probably revolve mostly around Brexit.