Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will ask the Queen to “sack” Boris Johnson if the prime minister refuses to quit after losing any no-confidence vote, John McDonnell warned yesterday.
Responding to reports that Johnson plans to ignore any such vote result in order to push through a no-deal Brexit, the shadow chancellor told an audience at the Edinburgh Festival: “I don’t want to drag the Queen into this, but I would be sending Jeremy Corbyn in a cab to Buckingham Palace to say we’re taking over.”
Robert Hazell, professor of government and constitution at UCL, explained in The Guardian how the monarch could become involved. “The Queen could dismiss Boris Johnson if he lost a vote of no confidence and refused to resign,” Hazell said.
“But she would only do so if the House of Commons indicated clearly who should be appointed as prime minister in his place.”
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act gives a 14-day window after a vote of no confidence to find a new prime minister capable of securing the confidence of the Commons.
It would be up to the Queen to formally appoint the new PM and dismiss Johnson.
A constitutional monarchy and the Queen’s role
In a monarchy, the king or queen is the head of state. Because the UK has a constitutional monarchy, the ability to make and pass legislation belongs to Parliament rather than the Queen.
However, the monarch retains a symbolic role in government. The Queen formally opens Parliament every year, and when the Government passes a bill, it cannot become an Act of Parliament until it receives her stamp of approval, a process called Royal Assent. In reality, though, no monarch has refused to give Royal Assent since 1708, when Queen Anne did so only at the behest of ministers.
As such, Queen Elizabeth II’s formal duties are largely representational, such as embarking on goodwill visits abroad and hosting foreign heads of state. The monarch’s main role is to serve as a vital part of Britain’s “national identity, unity and pride”, says the official royal website, royal.uk.
But the Queen does have a few unique legal privileges. Royal.uk says the Queen “retains the right to claim ownership of any unmarked mute swan swimming in open waters”. She also claims dominion over all whales, sturgeons and dolphins in the waters around England and Wales, doesn’t need a passport to travel abroad, and can drive without a licence.
And crucially for Brexit, the Queen retains the power to dismiss a sitting prime minister and appoint a new one, as well as – theoretically, at least – having the right to overrule the advice of ministers and Parliament.
In reality, Johnson would first have to lose a vote of no confidence, and the Queen would appoint only a successor backed by Parliament.
“Then the Queen would be able, and would feel able, to dismiss Johnson if he was not willing himself to resign, and to appoint that new person as prime minister,” says Professor Hazell in The Guardian.
Prince Charles, meddling monarch?
The Prince talked openly about his future as a monarch in the BBC documentary last year marking his landmark birthday Prince, Son and Heir: Charles at 70.
Although the main role of the Prince of Wales is to represent the Royal Family and aid the monarch, Charles has also campaigned on issues ranging from GM crops and climate change to architecture and alternative medicine.
This activism has led some commentators to level accusations of political “meddling” against the Prince, who celebrated his 70th birthday last November. Asked by BBC filmmakers whether his campaigning will continue when he is monarch, Charles answered: “No. It won’t. I’m not that stupid.”
He added: “I do realise that it is a separate exercise being sovereign. You can’t be the same as the sovereign if you’re the Prince of Wales or the heir… the two situations are completely different.”
The Queen’s close family
The influence of the Royal Family extends beyond the Queen. “Every year the Royal Family as a whole carries out over 2,000 official engagements throughout the UK and worldwide,” says royal.uk.
Last year, Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex embarked on a 16-day royal tour through Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand, meeting governors, officials and members of the public, with a total of 76 engagements.
To be given official duties – and a government stipend – royals must be members of the Queen’s close family. This is classified as her children, grandchildren and their spouses, along with the Queen’s cousins and their spouses.