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King Charles III plays role his mother did in U.K. power transition

The ‘kissing hands’ ceremony was important enough to Queen Elizabeth II that she participated only two days before she died

King Charles III welcomes Rishi Sunak during an audience at Buckingham Palace, where he invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party to become prime minister and form a new government. (Aaron Chown/Pool/Reuters)
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LONDON — King Charles III ascended the throne less than two months ago and is already on his second prime minister, playing a central role in that transition of power.

On Tuesday, in a carefully choreographed sequence of events that Britons are very familiar with these days, the monarch invited the new leader of the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak, to form a government. It was at that exact moment — and not before — that Sunak became prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Not that this was in any doubt. Sunak on Monday was selected as leader of the Conservative Party, heralding a number of firsts: the first person of color and first Hindu to lead Britain. At 42, Sunak is also the youngest prime minister in 200 years. He is also one of the richest politicians ever to hold office.

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Tuesday was also a first for the king, who for the first time has presided over a changeover in power. His mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, had 15 prime ministers during her long reign.

Britain is a constitutional monarchy and one of the few powers that the monarch has left is the ability to appoint the prime minister. In theory, the king could exert some personal choice; in practice, he automatically appoints the person who can command a majority in the House of Commons. (The last time a monarch exercised any real discretion was in 1931, when King George V convinced a prime minister not to resign.)

The ceremony is effectively a formal installation of the new prime minister. But it was important enough to Elizabeth that she performed the duty just two days before her death. Boris Johnson and Truss, on separate planes, flew to Balmoral in the Scottish highlands due to the queen’s poor health.

This time, the ceremony took place at Buckingham Palace, the official headquarters of the British royal family. It was also, for most of the queen’s life, the London residence of the British monarch. So far, Charles and Camilla, Queen Consort, have shown no sign of wanting to move into the palace and instead have kept their London base at nearby Clarence House.

In a private audience in the morning, Truss arrived at the palace and tendered her resignation. Shortly after, Sunak came. There was likely some bowing — by him — before he was invited to form a government.

The ceremony is called “kissing hands,” though in modern politics there is no kissing.

The monarch and the prime minister meet weekly, currently on Wednesdays, to discuss matters of state. There is no one else in the room, and many former prime ministers have spoken about how much they have enjoyed the weekly exchanges. Some have even said they found them therapeutic, knowing that their conversations won’t be leaked.

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In her final speech as prime minister, Truss said it had been a “huge honor to be prime minister of this great country” and highlighted leading “the nation in mourning [following] the death of her late majesty the queen, after 70 years of service, and welcoming the accession of His Majesty King Charles III.”

It’s unclear what Charles thought of the dizzying politics of the past few weeks as monarchs are expected to practice neutrality.

But Charles did raise eyebrows when, during his first weekly audience with Truss, he could be heard greeting the leader and muttering, “Dear, oh dear.”