How Boris Johnson Just Put the Queen in an Unprecedented Brexit Bind

August 28, 2019, 11:54 AM UTC

At this point, we’re in final season of The Crown territory.

On Wednesday morning, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth II to suspend the U.K. Parliament—a process that is a “Royal Pregrogative” power—in his latest effort to more closely control how the U.K. leaves the European Union. The request is so far the closest the monarch has come to getting stuck in the Brexit quagmire.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Queen approved the suspension from Balmoral Castle, her summer home in the highlands of Scotland.

Johnson’s move is extraordinary because it is so incendiary. Suspending Parliament means debating and voting in Parliament completely stops, and it largely wipes clean ongoing legislative activity. Unpassed measures must be typically restarted from scratch when the next session begins. Johnson, a pro-Brexit hardliner, is pulling this lever in a bid to frustrate legislation aimed at avoiding a no-deal Brexit or the possibility the U.K. will crash out of the EU at the end of October with few, if any, plans in place.

Suspending Parliament for political reasons is extremely unusual but not completely unheard of. It last happened in 1948, during a political crisis in which the U.K. government attempted to overrule the House of Lords, the U.K.’s upper house. A more comparable case occurred in 2008 in Canada, which has a U.K.-style political system. The Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Canada, ultimately agreed to the prime minister’s request to suspend Parliament, a move that was intended to prevent his government from falling, which would have triggered an election. The move drew outcry, including raising questions about the Governor General’s role.

That Johnson’s partisan gamesmanship was put in the hands of the Queen is ironic given her herculean efforts to stay out of U.K. politics. In January, she made a speech urging Britons to look to the “tried and true” methods of respecting different points of view, finding common ground, and “never losing sight of the bigger picture.” Those were immediately interpreted as a plea to end the political bickering and indecision that has dominated British politics since the vote to leave the EU in 2016.

But for all of her attempts to avoid political albatrosses, the Queen, by definition, holds sway over a wide range of government actions. When a new government is elected, for instance, she approves its “forming.”

So, was she likely to side with Johnson in this instance? Tradition dictates that the Queen typically follows the advice of the prime minister, since he or she is seen as representing the will of the people. The Queen may advise or warn a leader, but it is essentially unheard of for her to reject the agenda of the U.K.’s head of government. Johnson’s request, therefore, put the Queen in an unprecedented bind, having to choose between rejecting royal protocol or approving what Johnson’s critics say is a blatant power grab that defies the spirit of British democracy.

At present, Johnson’s current plan would suspend Parliament for 23 working days, reducing the lead-up to a crucial meeting with the EU ahead of the October 31 deadline for the U.K. to leave the EU. The abbreviated schedule would give MPs a shorter time frame to figure out how to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

This story has been updated following the Queen’s approval of the suspension of Parliament.

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