”The prime minister’s advice to HM the Queen and the prorogation which followed thereon was unlawful and is thus null and of no effect”.
With this brief sentence, a panel of judges in Scotland has placed the relationship between the Queen and her Prime Minister under a greater spotlight than perhaps at any previous time in her 67-year reign. It follows a legal challenge to the decision by Boris Johnson to prorogue parliament. The government argued it needed to bring forward a fresh legislative programme and so asked for the current parliamentary session to be closed and a new one to begin on October 14th 2019 with the State Opening of Parliament. His opponents argued it was a move to stop debate around Brexit ahead of October 31st 2019, the planned date for the UK’s exit from the European Union
Constitutional experts are still working out what exactly today’s ruling means for parliament, politicians and the Head of State herself. As that debate goes on, Royal Central looks at the links between the Monarch and ministers.
The Queen and her Prime Minister
The official website of the Royal Family is quite clear about the links between Elizabeth II and the incumbent of 10 Downing Street. It states that ”The Queen has a special relationship with the Prime Minister, the senior political figure in the British Government, regardless of their political party” . It also states that the Queen retains the right to meet regularly with the Prime Minister and usually holds an audience with her leading minister once a week, either in person or on the phone.
These conversations aren’t a one way street. The Royal Family’s site explains that the Queen ” has a right and a duty to express her views on Government matters” before adding the crucial phrase ” having expressed her views, The Queen abides by the advice of her ministers”.
The Queen abides by the advice of her ministers
This one sentence underlines the dilemma at the heart of today’s ruling. When Boris Johnson announced at the end of August 2019 that parliament would be prorogued with a new session opening in October of the same year, nothing could happen until the Queen had given her approval. Three Privy Counsellors travelled to Balmoral for the process to be completed. Speaking to BBC Five Live afterwards, royal commentator Nicholas Witchell said that the Queen and her advisers had felt ‘resentful’ over the way the matter had been handled.
Nicholas Witchell added that ”The Queen has never during her reign refused to accept the advice of her ministers. She is a monarch guided by precedent. Therefore she will have felt pretty boxed in – that she had no option.”
‘To encourage and warn’
There is a mechanism by which the Queen can influence her ministers although it is hard to pin down. The royal website says the Monarch retains ” the right ‘to be consulted, to encourage and to warn’ her ministers via regular audiences with the Prime Minister”.
As once of the most experienced stateswomen in the world, the Queen has plenty of advice to dispense. What is interesting in this case is the rapidity with which the move to prorogation happened. The royal site reminds us that all conversations between the Queen and her ministers remain confidential – we will most likely never know if the Monarch offered counsel on this major event.
Now that the Court of Session, the highest civil court in Scotland, has ruled that the advice given was unlawful, the relationship between the Queen and her Prime Minister has been left open to questions. The Monarch has to follow the advice she is given but if that advice is ruled to be wrong, do royal actions have any power? The court has already ruled that the prorogation which took place in the early hours of September 10th was null and of no effect, but can parliament go back to business? And if it does, is it going against the rulings of its Queen?
It should be remembered that the court ruling comes after a legal challenge from around 70 MPs, most of whom support the UK remaining within the European Union. The government, which says it intends to meet the deadline for Brexit of October 31st, will challenge today’s ruling in the Supreme Court in London. Meanwhile, the High Court in London last week ruled that the move to prorogue was lawful.
This debate is still unfolding and developing and no doubt will take further twists and turns ahead of the return of Parliament on October 14th 2019.