Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II attended her first-ever cabinet meeting on Tuesday, where ministers marked her diamond jubilee by naming a chunk of the Antarctic in her honour and giving her 60 placemats.
In the only visit by a British monarch to a cabinet meeting for more than 200 years, the queen stayed for half an hour at Downing Street with Prime Minister David Cameron and the top ministers of his government.
The 86-year-old spoke twice, once to urge them “gently and humorously” to shorten her annual speech to parliament setting out the government’s plans, and then to wish them a happy Christmas, Cameron’s spokesman said.
Wearing a Stewart Parvin royal blue wool dress and matching coat with a sapphire and diamond brooch, the queen was greeted by the smiling prime minister outside the door of his official residence, 10 Downing Street.
He said it was the first time a monarch had visited a cabinet meeting since king George III in 1781, and offered Queen Elizabeth a “very warm welcome” after she took her seat next to him in the middle of the cabinet table.
“On behalf of everyone, I would like to congratulate you on a fantastic jubilee year,” Cameron told the queen, who was sitting between him and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Ministers marked Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne with a gift of 60 bespoke placemats imprinted with images of Buckingham Palace, which were hand finished and then sealed with heat-resistant lacquer, officials said.
The idea for the gift came from the palace, the Downing Street spokesman insisted.
After attending cabinet, the queen headed across the road to the Foreign Office to receive her second jubilee present from the government: the renaming of an area of British Antarctic Territory in her honour.
Queen Elizabeth Land, as it will now be known on all British maps, is around 169,000 square miles (437,000 square kilometres) in size, making up just under a third of the territory.
“This is a fitting tribute at the end of Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee year,” said Hague. “To be able to recognise the UK’s commitment to Antarctica with a permanent association with Her Majesty is a great honour.”
Historically, British monarchs used to chair cabinet meetings, but while Queen Elizabeth remains head of state her role is largely formal and the monarchy has to remain strictly neutral in political affairs.
Queen Elizabeth has been to Downing Street on numerous occasions during her reign, most recently in July for a diamond jubilee lunch hosted by Cameron and attended by former prime ministers Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major.
Twelve British premiers, the first being Winston Churchill, have served during her 60-year reign but she has never attended a cabinet meeting, where secretaries of state discuss the big issues of the day.
The queen arrived in a limousine with police motorcycle outriders and inside, ministers lined up to shake her hand, with the men bowing their heads and ladies curtseying as a mark of respect.
At the start of the meeting Cameron said that her father king George VI had met the cabinet during World War II, but added: “We think the last time a monarch came to the cabinet was in 1781, during the American War of Independence.”
The prime minister remarked that Anglo-American relations had improved since then, Downing Street said.
Cameron then said they would “crack on with a proper cabinet agenda which starts with the parliamentary business”, including a briefing from finance minister George Osborne on Britain’s struggling economy.
In a rare step for British politics, the first few minutes of the meeting were televised and showed the queen sitting in silence while the prime minister and Chief Whip George Young spoke.
The queen’s political involvement extends to giving a weekly audience to the prime minister at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on government matters.
No-one else is present, no notes are taken and the content is never discussed.