Former senior legal counsel to the government Stephen Laws QC was on the Today programme this morning. He had a very interesting take on what’s happening in parliament at the moment. He presented the notion that the Queen might be required to decide whether certain Bills that had passed the Commons should get Royal Assent or not depending on what the government asks of her on the matter.
“It is a sacred duty of all UK politicians not to involve the Monarch in politics. They have a constitutional responsibility to resolve difficulties between themselves in accordance with the rules, and so as not to call on the ultimate referee,” Laws said, and I happen to agree with him on that point. Several things to cover here. One, if the Queen was roped into all of this it would be because the prime minister had explicitly decided to do so. In other words, Theresa May would have to figure that since Bercow was opening up a can of constitutional problems she might as well go and open a whole other can of constitutional problems elsewhere. This would be irresponsible to say the very, very least.
Two, and I know I keep saying this, but Theresa May does not have a majority in parliament and if she did, none of these problems would even be problems. Say all you want about the Speaker and various backbenchers trying to thwart the will of the government: the government is only the government because it can command the will of parliament and there is no other reason it is the government. In a hung parliament, as everyone should know, the government needs to work with allies to command this majority on a consistent basis. When it cannot command a majority, it is because parliament has expressed its will, and this is the primary check on the executive we have in this country. You want constitutional purity, well there it is.
Finally, what the Laws scenario really made me think about was this: what if the prime minister really does ask the Queen to squash the Bills passed by backbenchers in relation to Brexit, and the Monarch responds by batting away the government’s advice and giving Royal Assent to the Bills passed by the House anyhow? Will we see Her Majesty’s face on the front of the one of the right of centre tabloids with the words “Saboteur” or perhaps “The Enemy of the People” or even more absurd, “Traitor”? Would a newspaper calling Her Majesty a traitor be treason? More to the point, would such a thing represent peak Brexit?
On matters of the British constitution, I feel completely safe in asserting the following: if you have got to a point where you are asking the Monarch to make political decisions, you have gone very, very, very wrong somewhere along the way. You are risking the constitution of this country exponentially more than anything John Bercow could ever do in his wildest imaginings by travelling down such a path.
Paul W says
I am surprised no-one has drawn a constitutional parallels with the dismissal of Gough Whitlam and his Labor government in Australia in November 1975. In order to end weeks of highly partisan, calculated parliamentary wrangling and deadlock over the granting of supply (funds) to the Labor government by the opposition Liberal-National controlled Upper House, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, sacked Whitlam as prime minister and replaced him with the leader of the Liberal-National opposition, Malcolm Fraser. (The dismissal was not on the Queen’s advice, by the way.)
Rather naively perhaps, Whitlam assumed that the Governor-General would stick tamely by his Labor ministers in the parliamentary dispute. Instead, Sir John used the Crown’s hitherto dormant ‘reserve powers’ to cut the Gordian knot by dismissing Whitlam and appointing a new prime minister who could unblock government supply in the Upper House and who would call a general election. Fraser’s Liberal-National coalition went on to win the subsequent election by a wide margin.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that Her Majesty should settle Brexit by sacking Theresa May and appointing Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister instead. That would just be silly.