There’s still time for the Queen and Theresa May to kill Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit – here’s how

May’s official resignation on Wednesday might just spring up some surprises

Philip Goldenberg
Tuesday 23 July 2019 18:07
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Boris Johnson wins Tory leadership race

On Wednesday, Theresa May will travel the short distance across London to present her resignation to the Queen. It is part of Britain’s democratic ritual, but it also offers an opportunity, however remote, for democratic innovation.

That meeting between arguably the two most powerful people in the land need not necessarily be the rubber-stamping exercise we expect, and there remains a constitutional avenue which could stymie Boris Johnson’s plans for a no-deal Brexit.

As a public service, I have imagined the conversation at Buck House that could set in train this unusual course of events:

Theresa May: Good afternoon, Your Majesty (curtsies elegantly)

HM Queen: Good afternoon, prime minister (nods graciously). Please be seated.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“How can I help you?”

“Sadly, Ma’am, I am here to tender my resignation as your prime minister. It has been a privilege to serve Your Majesty.

“Thank you. You’ve had a pretty torrid time. Can you please advise me for whom I should send.”

“Well, Ma’am, my party has had an election by its members, who have chosen Mr Boris Johnson.”

“Hmm. I’ve heard more enthusiastic recommendations.”

“You’re telling me! Oops, sorry Ma’am.”

“Please explain the situation.”

“Yes, Ma’am. In order to win the membership election, Mr Johnson committed himself to leave the European Union by 31 October, as he put it, “Deal or no deal”. Yet there is a clear majority in the House of Commons against a no-deal Brexit.”

“Hmm, a tricky situation on which my private secretary has kindly briefed me.”

“Please share it with me, Ma’am.”

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“Certainly. It’s one of the advantages of a long reign that one has, as it were, seen it all before. In 1963, there were similar convulsions in the Conservative Party over a new leader. Of course, the Conservative Party had not then unwisely adopted a democratic process for selecting its new leader.”

“O happy days. Oops, sorry, I interrupted, Ma’am.”

“Quite. So the leader who emerged from its somewhat tortuous processes was Lord Home, who was not certain he could form a viable government.”

“Mr Johnson does not suffer from uncertainty, Ma’am.”

“Indeed not. But the device we adopted in 1963 was not to appoint Lord Home as prime minister and allow him to kiss our royal hand, but to ask him to seek to form a viable government, and then report back on his progress.”

“Golly, Ma’am. So (long pause for thought)... Boris would have to seek a confidence vote, which would be amendable if the speaker agreed, and the House could amend it to the effect that there could not be a no-deal Brexit without its express consent.”

“My ever-thoughtful private secretary mentioned this in his brief, and pointed out that Mr Speaker might well be enthusiastic on this point.”

“Wow!! But, Ma’am, it’s your decision.”

“Well, prime minister, it is and it isn’t. Of course in making that decision we would be exercising our royal prerogative, but you are still our prime minister, and we are therefore constitutionally bound to follow any advice you formally tender. Would you like to give me any advice?”

[Mrs May breaks every rule of etiquette, and dances round the room singing “Happy days are here again”]

“Would you like some laudanum, prime minister? Our predecessor Queen Victoria found it quite helpful at moments of stress”

“Very sorry, Ma’am. No thanks. But I now give you formal advice to adopt the Home precedent you have so helpfully suggested.”

“Thank you, prime minister.”

“No, thank YOU, Your Majesty!”

Philip Goldenberg was a long-standing adviser to the Liberal Democrats and the principal author of the 2010-15 coalition’s machinery of government agreement

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