Why the Queen could sack Boris Johnson as prime minister

There is no constitutional obstacle to the monarch removing Johnson if an alternative leader wins the confidence of MPs. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The latest target of Downing Street’s bamboozling array of threats is the Queen (as my colleague Stephen writes here). Having briefed at the weekend that Boris Johnson will dare the monarch to sack him if MPs agree on an alternative prime minister, No 10 is now claiming that Elizabeth II wouldn’t have the power to do so in any case.

Its alleged elixir is a 70-year-old convention known as “the Lascelles Principles”. A senior No 10 source, who used language reminiscent of Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings, told the Sun: “Boris won’t resign even if he loses a no-confidence vote, and it is not within the sovereign’s constitutional powers to make him.

“The Lascelles Principles make this clear. The PM will advise the Queen of that and she must follow her Prime Minister’s advice. That’s how this country works. We said we will deliver Brexit by October 31 by all means necessary and we meant it.” 

Yet as a cursory search reveals, there’s one problem with this cunning plan: the Lascelles Principles are defunct (if they were ever valid at all). The convention originated in a 1950 letter to the editor of the Times by Alan Lascelles, then a private secretary to King George VI, writing under the pseudonym “Senex”. 

Following the 1950 general election, which left Labour with a precarious majority, Lascelles suggested that any monarch could reject a request by a prime minister to dissolve parliament for a new election on three grounds: 1. That the existing parliament “was still vital, viable, and capable of doing its job”. 2. That an election “would be detrimental to the national economy”. 3. That there was an alternative prime minister “who could govern for a reasonable period with a working majority in the House of Commons”. 

But when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed in 2011, the Lascelles Principles ceased to apply. It is now MPs, rather than the prime minister, who determine whether parliament will be dissolved for an election (hence Johnson’s failure to secure one). The House of Commons can either trigger an election through a two-thirds vote in favour of one, or through a no-confidence vote in the government (and a subsequent failure to agree an alternative prime minister within 14 days). 

Yet even if the Lascelles Principles still applied, they would not help Johnson. Indeed, they support precisely the convention he contests: that the prime minister should depart if he loses the confidence of the House of Commons and an alternative leader achieves it (as stated in paragraph 2.19 of the Cabinet Manual). 

Should Johnson refuse to make way, precedent suggests that the Queen has the power to sack him. In 1834, King William IV dismissed Lord Melbourne owing to concerns over the radicalism of some Whig ministers. More recently, in 1975, Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam was removed by the then governor general John Kerr, the Australian representative of the monarch, after the senate refused to allow a vote on the government’s spending bills (instead demanding an election). 

There is no constitutional barrier to the Queen similarly removing Johnson should he refuse to depart even if an alternative leader wins the confidence of the Commons. Whether Elizabeth II, who has scrupulously sought to remain above party politics, would willingly perform this role is a different question. 

But for all No 10’s brash briefing, the biggest problem for rebel MPs is not that Johnson could seek to squat in Downing Street. It is that they are incapable of agreeing who could replace him. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.