Brexit Dragged the Queen Into Politics—And Isn’t Letting Go

September 1, 2019, 9:00 AM UTC

Queen Elizabeth II has had an odd week, even in the context of a long and unusual career.

In the midst of the British Monarch’s annual summer holidays—she’s reportedly at her castle in the Scottish highlands—she has been pulled not only into the political morass of Brexit, but into a constitutional crisis unprecedented in her 66-year reign, and, essentially, in modern British history.

On Wednesday, she agreed to suspend Parliament for an unheard-of 23 working days, on the binding advice of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That move alone was controversial, but it may not be the end of the Queen’s headaches. Rival political party leaders have requested meetings with her over her decision this week, a former prime minister is leading a legal charge against the prime minister’s advice that could end up in the Supreme Court, and next week could bring the Queen her biggest challenge of all: a showdown between the government and Parliament that will inevitably require her endorsement (and maybe, just maybe, force her to take sides.)

“The Queen is not meant to be put in this position,” says Jo Murkens, an expert in the constitution at London School of Economics. “But she has been put into this position. So, then what do you do?”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised the Queen to suspend Parliament last week ahead of crucial Brexit negotiations, a move that was lambasted by his critics. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell—Getty Images)
Jeff J Mitchell—Getty Images

Johnson insists his suspension of Parliament is merely a healthy procedural reset before he lays out his domestic policy. But the length and timing of the suspension have led his critics—including, increasingly, many in his own party—to argue that the move not only frustrates British Parliamentarians’ attempts to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU ahead of the October 31 cut-off, but worse, is a cynical assault on the norms that underpin British democracy. (It’s not just MPs: according to one poll, just 13% of British adults buy Johnson’s logic.)

Amid the maelstrom, the Queen agreed to the suspension. She really had no choice, constitutional experts say: she is duty-bound to follow the advice of the British prime minister.

“It would have been very, very difficult for the Queen not to follow the government’s advice,” says Robert Hazell, a professor at University College London’s Constitution Unit. “And there’s no evidence that [Johnson] is seeking to avoid a vote of no confidence,” which would trigger a general election, he added. If Parliamentarians wish to bring down the government, they have time to do so next week.

Still, the move “put her on the spot,” says Hazell.

That awkwardness did not go unnoticed. Jeremy Corybn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, and other party leaders, said they would petition to meet with the Queen directly—a claim Hazell noted is basically “for show.”

Then, there were the legal challenges to this week’s series of events, including one backed by a previous prime minister and a cross-party range of MPs, arguing that Johnson’s advice to the Queen should be legally struck down. A hearing will be heard next Thursday in London. A legal injunction of Parliament’s suspension was struck down on Friday in Scottish court, while another request will be heard in a court in Northern Ireland next week.

But most dramatic of all is a potential scenario that would put the Queen in an even tighter pickle than she found herself in this week, say Hazell and Murkens. That’s the possibility that MPs may pass promised legislation blocking the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, and that Johnson may then ask the Queen to withhold the “Royal Assent”—the official Royal rubber-stamp—for that legislation to become law.

On the question of whether such a thing has ever happened before, you might find yourself combing the history books of Great Britain and the wider Commonwealth, and encountering crises with names like the “Scottish Militia Bill” (Queen Anne, 1707), the “King-Byng Affair” (Canada, 1925), and “The Dismissal” (Australia, 1975).

Queen Elizabeth could face an even greater constitutional crisis next week if she is drawn back into a vote by Parliament against the Government. (Photo by Chris Jackson—WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Chris Jackson—WPA Pool/Getty Images

Cases where a monarch or representative did intervene against the wishes of the government tend to leave the monarch bruised. However, none quite translate to just how unusual the current political situation is, says Murkens, given it could set up a direct clash over who represents the people—the government or Parliament—and which one the Queen ultimately sees as more legitimate.

It would be a truly spectacular, and unprecedented, constitutional crisis—one that would go to the heart of the future of the monarchy. But what are the chances of it actually a happening?

“We do know that [Johnson] does play a little fast and loose with convention, but I wouldn’t expect him to tear up the rulebook completely,” says Hazell.

Still, Brexit has proved itself to be full of surprises, and Johnson himself is famed for being unpredictable—unlike the Queen, who over decades of political crises, has perfected the role of never publicly surprising anyone.

Even if she were to be caught in such a breathtaking constitutional Catch-22, it’s difficult to imagine her ever shirking the advice of the prime minister, since the monarch has, essentially, always sided with the head of U.K. government.

Then again, says Murkens, “if there was ever a time to rock the boat…”

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