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9 October 2019

No 10’s briefing against the Queen shows that it has no plan to avoid a Brexit delay

Downing Street's priority is now to avoid the blame for any extension beyond 31 October. 

By Stephen Bush

Angela Merkel told Boris Johnson that the United Kingdom will never leave the European Union unless Northern Ireland remains in a customs union with the EU! Downing Street has briefed to practically everybody that Merkel took the tough, uncompromising approach in a call with Johnson. But the tone of the briefing has left seasoned Merkel-watchers smelling a rat, because it sounds so unlike the German Chancellor’s style and approach.  

No one, not even the Queen, can stand in the way of Johnson’s determination to take us out of the European Union! Downing Street sources tell the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn that Boris Johnson will tell Her Maj that she cannot sack him even if parliament votes for an alternative prime minister during the 14-day period, citing the Lascelles Principles – the reasoning set out by Alan Lascelles, George VI’s last principal private secretary and Elizabeth II’s, way back in 1950, about the conditions in which the sovereign could refuse a sitting prime minister a dissolution. 

The then-Labour government had seen its majority reduced to just two in the 1950 general election, and questions were being asked about the conditions in which prime minister Clement Attlee might be told, after asking for an election, that he couldn’t have one, because a Conservative-Liberal coalition might have the numbers to govern instead. 

In a letter to the Times, Lascelles set out a series of occasions when the sovereign could refuse the prime minister a dissolution. But because the Fixed-term Parliaments Act abolished the use of the royal prerogative to call elections, passing it from the hands of the prime minister and into the hands of the legislature, the principles no longer apply. 

But Downing Street believe that the principles can be inverted and used as a condition by which the Queen cannot sack a prime minister. How seriously should we take this wheeze? Well, shocking as this may seem, a letter to the Times doesn’t have statutory force. What does have statutory force is the ability of MPs to start a countdown to dissolution by passing a vote of no confidence under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and their ability to stop it by passing a vote of confidence, whether in the sitting government or some other arrangement. A letter from a functionary half a century ago might be useful knowledge for a pub quiz but it doesn’t alter the constitutional reality in 2019.

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Zoom out from both stories and ask yourself a question: would a government that had a serious plan to circumvent the Benn Act and avoid a Brexit extension be briefing that it is so hard that even the Queen will tremble before its knowledge of the British constitution, that Merkel has insisted that the UK will never leave the EU unless Northern Ireland says in a customs union, and that Boris Johnson admits in writing that Kraftwerk are better than the Beatles? Aren’t these the actions of an administration whose eyes have moved from the question of doing Brexit on 31 October to avoid blame for when it doesn’t happen?