As the Queen welcomes the fourteenth Prime Minister of her reign, the ancient practice of ‘kissing hands’ will once more take centre stage. The brief exchange between monarch and premier will be mentioned in the Court Circular entry marking the meeting that will see Boris Johnson become PM. In the 21st century, it’s thought the act involves either a very short and symbolic brushing of lips or even just a handshake. But this nod to ritual is a vital part of the process of taking power. And over a century ago, one king called his new Prime Minister to his holiday home to ensure government could continue seamlessly.
When Edward VII had headed to Biarritz for a springtime break in 1908, his government had been under the stewardship of Liberal Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. But his health was failing fast and on April 3rd, he resigned. Herbert Asquith, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was selected as his successor without opposition ensuring a smooth transition – with one small obstacle. The king was still in France. And so Herbert Asquith headed to the Riviera to become Prime Minister.
He arrived at the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz on April 7th 1908 for the traditional ceremony. It was a very regal setting. The hotel had originally been built as a holiday home around 1855 for the Empress Eugenie by her still doting husband, Napoleon III. It was turned into a hotel in 1880 and by the time Edward VII and Herbert Asquith met there, it had been completely rebuilt within its original walls following a fire in 1903.
This ‘kissing hands’ took place behind the closed doors of the hotel’s luxurious rooms with Asquith leaving almost immediately to return home and start to build his government. Edward remained in Biarritz, a place he loved.
Since then, kissing hands has taken place in the palaces and royal residences in the UK. But the fact that a politician was ready to travel so far, so quickly underlines how vital this ancient tradition is to the transition of power. The inclusion of the phrase ‘kissed hands’ might well be the most archaic part of the official confirmations that Boris Johnson has taken office as Prime Minister but it is a moment that ensures his hold on office is complete.