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‘the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn’.
Walter Bagehot, on the constitutional role of the monarch (1867)


The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been, since the time of Queen Victoria when Bagehot wrote these words, the very model of a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch is decorative but plays no substantive role in politics or in the shaping of public policy. The seat of real political power is the House of Commons and the Prime Minister whose party controls a majority. That’s the theory.

The Brexit crisis, however, presents us with the complete negation of that theory. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, came to power after an unprecedented public referendum unexpectedly and narrowly opted to exit the European Union (hence “Brexit”). Her predecessor, David Cameron, hoped to shut up the faction in his Conservative Party that was calling for getting out. When he lost, he sensibly resigned. Since the Conservatives still held a majority in the Commons, they decided in due course to nominate May, who then presided over the long, complex negotiation of the terms of a British exit.

However, when she brought the deal back to Parliament, it was resoundingly rejected, with a substantial minority of Conservatives joining virtually all other members to vote No. This week, she brought a slightly revised deal to the House, and it too was rejected by a wide margin. At this writing, the House of Commons has voted to also reject the option of a No-Deal Brexit at the end of this month. They will next adopt a motion to request an extension of the deadline (which the EU may or may not grant).

We have a government that cannot command a majority on the major issue of the day, but which is kept in power by members who don’t agree with the prime minister on that issue.

Now, in normal British practice, when a prime minister loses a vote on a major issue, she or he will go to the Queen and offer her/his resignation, along with a recommendation either to appoint someone else, or to dissolve Parliament and call new elections. May has done neither. Thus we have a government that cannot command a majority on the major issue of the day, but which is kept in power by members who don’t agree with the prime minister on that issue.

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The key here is that both the Conservatives and the main opposition party, Labour, are deeply split on Brexit. The Conservatives can only agree on keeping May’s government in office, even though most of them either think Brexit is wrong, or think her particular deal was too weak. Labour can only agree on stopping May’s plan, but cannot come up with an alternative plan that could gain general support within their party.

There is also no majority for holding another referendum, nor for having another general election. We have a prime minister who lacks a working majority, being kept in office by a party that fears a new election because it is disunited. We have an Opposition that also fears an election because it is also disunited. The result is a parliament that can only decide what it doesn’t want, but cannot agree on what it wants.

The British constitutional system is, in short, off the rails, and neither major party is in a position to get it back on track.

Here is where the Queen could justify taking a more active role. Formally, the Prime Minister is appointed by and removable by the monarch. Parliament is dissolved by the monarch, elections are called by the monarch. Normally, each of these actions would be taken only on the “advice” of the prime minister (who by definition would have a working majority in the Commons).

The Queen obviously cannot impose a solution on a society that is also deeply divided over Brexit. But she could, given the present crisis, use her prerogative to dismiss the Prime Minister, dissolve Parliament and call new elections. With the prospect of new elections, the EU would be more likely to agree to delay the deadline. The likely result, after a campaign fought on the issue of Brexit, would be a parliament with a clear majority, either for or against Brexit, but at least able to act.

impeachment unavoidable

John Peller