The Queen And Government Appointments

I thought I’d mark Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle by sharing this document which I recently obtained through Britain’s Freedom of Information Act:

This is Theresa May’s formal submission to the Queen recommending the appointment of her new government after she became Prime Minister in July 2016. The reference to the Prime Minister’s ‘humble duty’ and the use of the third person have been standard in documents such as these since at least the nineteenth century. As usual, the Queen has signified her acceptance of the advice by writing ‘Approved’ along with her initials in the upper right-hand corner.

This document isn’t quite the whole story, however. One of the axioms of constitutional monarchy is that the Sovereign is obliged to accept ministerial advice, yet the Monarch also has the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn. In order to reconcile these seemingly contradictory tenets, a practice has emerged whereby ministers often consult the Sovereign informally before submitting formal advice. This allows the Monarch to voice any concerns they may have, though if ministers insist on offering unpalatable advice, the Sovereign must ultimately accept it.[1] In this case, the practice of submitting informal advice ahead of time also has the advantage of allowing Downing Street to publicly announce appointments sooner than if they had to wait for the Queen to approve a formal submission from the Prime Minister.[2]

At first glance, this document might seem like nothing more than a bit of trivia for Westminster wonks like me, but the fact that I’m able to publish it at all is nothing short of a miracle (I’ll tell the story of how I got the Government to release it in a separate post). Thanks to section 37(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act, information which ‘relates to’ communications with the Sovereign is exempt from disclosure. Since 2010, this exemption has been absolute, meaning the Government is not obliged to consider any public interest arguments in favor of releasing the information. This is supposed to protect the Queen’s political neutrality by providing her with a safe space in which she can discuss issues with ministers, but the Government often interprets this exemption as broadly as it possibly can. Consequently, large amounts of information—including anodyne documents such as this one—won’t be publicly released until well after the Her Majesty’s death. This makes it difficult for the public to understand the monarchy’s role in government, and in the long run, I don’t think this approach is doing the Crown any favors.

NOTES

[1] For an example of ministers sticking to their guns in the face of royal opposition, see Anne Twomey, The Chameleon Crown: The Queen and Her Australian Governors (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2006) 246-258.

[2] Not every government observes this courtesy. When Tony Blair attempted to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor in 2003, it was alleged that he failed to consult the Queen ahead of time, and Lord Irvine of Lairg’s 2009 submission to the House of Lords’ Select Committee on the Constitution lends credence to this view. Gordon Brown, on the other hand, was said to be much more conscientious about consulting Her Majesty before announcing his ministerial colleagues.

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