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Royal News

Kissing hands: how King Charles will oversee an ancient tradition that turns Sir Keir Starmer into Prime Minister

When The King appoints his third Prime Minister, he’ll do so with an ancient custom called the kissing hands ceremony. What is this element of a government change?

Buckingham Palace is getting ready for a major moment. On July 5th 2024, the outgoing Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, arrived to offer his resignation after losing the general election. King Charles accepted and after a farewell audience, Mr Sunak departed. Moments later, The King will receive the leader of the new largest party in the Commons – Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer.

In the audience with the new Prime Minister, The King will ask Sir Keir if they can form a government in his name. Sir Keir will accept and at this point, tradition takes over.

The kissing hands is, at this point, merely a symbolic gesture, a name for the proceedings, but at one point in history, the prime minister was actually required to kiss the Sovereign’s hand to show their loyalty to the Sovereign and the Crown. Nowadays, the new Prime Minister bows or curtsies to the Monarch instead.

However, the formal audience will likely be described in the Court Circular as ‘kissing hands’ even though no physical interaction takes place.  

For example, on 24 July 2019, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked to form a government, this was the announcement: “The Queen received in Audience The Right Honourable Boris Johnson MP this afternoon and requested him to form a new Administration. Mr Johnson accepted Her Majesty’s offer and kissed hands upon his appointment as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury.”

Finally, a photograph of the moment The King meets with his new PM will likely be distributed.

This is the second time that King Charles has appointed a Prime Minister. In October 2022, just weeks into his reign, he asked Rishi Sunak to form a government after his predecessor, Liz Truss, resigned after a calamitous seven week tenure as PM.

Rishi Sunak called a general election for July 4th 2024 in which his Conservative party suffered its worst ever electoral defeat. Labour won by a landslide.

Though the kissing hands ceremony usually happens in England, it’s not the only country where it’s happened, incidentally: The Queen’s great-grandfather, Edward VII, once summoned his new prime minister, H.H. Asquith, to Biarritz, France in order to kiss hands, at a time when the prime minister was expected to physically perform the action.

About author

Jess Ilse is the Assistant Editor at Royal Central. She specialises in the British, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Royal Families and has been following royalty since Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Jess has provided commentary for media outlets in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Jess works in communications and her debut novel THE MAJESTIC SISTERS will publish in Fall 2024.