A Tempest In A Teacup?

The King had tea with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, yesterday. At first glance, this might seem like a standard diplomatic nicety, but it took place against a backdrop of tensions between the United Kingdom and the European Union over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.[1] Buckingham Palace emphasized that this meeting was held on the Government’s advice: “The King is pleased to meet any world leader if they are visiting Britain and it is the government’s advice that he should do so,” said a Palace spokesperson. However, a Downing Street spokesperson muddied the waters by stating that “[i]t’s for the King to make those decisions.”

That statement is unfortunate from a constitutional standpoint. One of the core principles of modern monarchy is that the Sovereign acts on the advice of ministers, and ministers assume responsibility for the Monarch’s public acts. This is particularly important when the Sovereign’s actions might generate controversy, as is the case here. A range of figures from across the political spectrum have criticized the meeting, and if ministers miscalculated when they advised the King, they need to own their mistake instead of trying to pass the buck.[2]

This behavior is even more remarkable when you consider that ministers have traditionally gone to great lengths to avoid embarrassing the Monarch. For example, efforts to allow Australian state premiers to advise Queen Elizabeth II directly on the appointment of state governors failed for many years because ministers in both Australia and the UK worried that it could place her in an awkward position.[3]

Modern politicians seem far less reluctant to embarrass the Sovereign. Indeed, the past few years have seen elements of the Government take an increasingly cavalier approach toward the Crown. The prorogation dispute of 2019 is probably the most high-profile example. In his willingness to ‘get Brexit done,’ Boris Johnson asked the late Queen to sanction an act that many people, including a unanimous Supreme Court, regarded as profoundly undemocratic. Although she acted within the bounds of constitutional propriety, the optics were terrible.

That same year also saw media reports that Johnson would refuse to step down if he lost the confidence of the Commons, with a ‘senior No. 10 source’ telling The Sun that “Boris won’t resign even if he loses a no confidence vote, and it is not within the sovereign’s constitutional powers to make him. The Lascelles Principles make this clear. The PM will advise the Queen of that and she must follow her Prime Minister’s advice. That’s how this country works.” Luckily, that scenario never came to pass. But if the Queen had dismissed Johnson after he lost a no-confidence vote, there’s every reason to think he wouldn’t have gone quietly. After all, The Sun’s source also said “[w]e said we will deliver Brexit by October 31 by all means necessary and we meant it.[4]” The fact that these things happened under a Conservative administration makes it all the more astonishing.

So why is this happening? I suspect it can be chalked up to a more bare-knuckled style of politics that wants to win at all costs plus a hefty helping of cluelessness regarding the intricacies of the constitution. It’s a worrying development that could have major repercussions for the Monarchy. Traditionally, the Monarch is supposed to be the ultimate umpire of the constitution. In the past, they could safely stand up to the Government when necessary because they didn’t have to worry about fighting ministers in the court of public opinion. But if ministers are no longer willing to shield the Sovereign from controversy, their ability to police the constitution will almost certainly be diminished.

[1] After much negotiation, the UK and the EU have agreed to the Windsor Framework which aims to address many of these issues. Von der Leyen and Rishi Sunak formally unveiled the proposal at a joint press conference earlier in the day.  

[2] It seems the Government itself may have had misgivings about the propriety of asking the King to meet with her. Over the weekend, the BBC’s Chris Mason suggested that there were some “some strong words being exchanged within Whitehall about the whole idea of offering a meeting with the King so close to a major political moment.”

[3] Ministers took their lead from the Queen herself, who harbored significant misgivings about the prospect of receiving direct advice. For a detailed account of the Queen’s role in the process that led to the passage of the Australia Act 1986, see Anne Twomey, The Chameleon Crown: The Queen and Her Australian Governors (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2006). A briefer account by the same author can be found here.

[4] Even if Johnson kept uncharacteristically quiet, his associates might well have taken up cudgels on his behalf.

This entry was posted in Monarchy in Britain, The Monarchy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Tempest In A Teacup?

  1. Froghole says:

    Many thanks for that. The desire of state governments to circumvent Canberra was not confined to the sovereign. Australian state premiers manipulated the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to obtain the appointment of state governors, grants of honours (they had/have their own lists), etc., and also to frustrate attempts by the federal government to bar future appeals to the privy council (state supreme courts having the ability, until 1986, to leapfrog the high court in Canberra even after appeals from the high court itself were blocked in 1968). This was the case even when Callaghan was foreign secretary. Whitlam complained about it in ‘The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975′ (1985), and it has recently been the subject of an article by Changwei Chen: ”To Dust Off the Cobwebs’: the Whitlam Government’s Failure to Completely Abolish Appeals from Australian Courts to the Privy Council’ in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, v. 49, 2021 (1), 178-200. Opposition to the proposals of Whitlam and Murphy came not only from coalition ministries in the states, like Victoria (Hamer) and Queensland (Bjelke-Petersen), but also from ALP ministries in South Australia (Dunstan), Tasmania (Rees, who had very poor relations with Whitlam) and Western Australia (Tonkin). The attempt by Whitlam to limit states’ rights was arguably a contributory, if minor, factor in the coalition’s gamesmanship over senate appointments, which led to Whitlam’s fall in November 1975.

Comments are closed.