Bob Morris reflects on what the Prime Minister’s recent transgression might tell us about the constitutional status of the UK sovereign.
Speaking recently to a former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg – the nearest to Yankee royalty – David Cameron spilled the beans on his own sovereign’s reaction to the Scottish referendum decision to stay in the United Kingdom: ‘She purred down the line’. Does this incident tell us anything about the current state of the British constitution or is it best written off as a trivial prime ministerial gaffe?
For the gaffe view is that the conversation was intended to be entirely private and was picked up by a journalist’s microphone by accident. One might get hoity-toity about whether a relationship of personal confidentiality was transgressed by some immature behaviour. On the other hand, as a Times columnist (Carol Midgley, 27 September) put it ‘indiscretions show politicians at their most human’. David Cameron apologised publicly and vowed to do so personally at his next regular audience with the Queen. Nothing otherwise will eventuate.
Precisely – the incident on the other view illustrates an important, largely unrecognised fact: the UK sovereign has no significant constitutional powers left. The most important – discretion to choose the Prime Minister and the power to grant (and, by implication, withhold) dissolutions of Parliament – have been lost. The first was lost when all political parties adopted internal rules to appoint their own leaders, and post-electoral manoeuvring was rather later made subject to procedures now publicly set out in the Cabinet Manual, which excluded/shielded the sovereign from participation short of recognising the outcome. The second, the power to grant or withhold dissolution, went following 2011 legislation for fixed term Parliaments.
The latter’s significance for the Palace falls to be judged against the view of a former Queen’s private secretary observing that the dissolution power was one that kept politicians respectful:
The power to grant or deny a dissolution in certain circumstances … adds enormously to the wariness with which British Prime Ministers approach the sovereign. (Sir W. Heseltine, ‘The Fabian Commission on the future of the monarchy’, Constitutional Law and Policy Review, February 2004, 84-92 at pp. 86-7).
No doubt David Cameron’s relationship with the current sovereign remains personally respectful, but does the incident show that constitutional respect has now gone? And, if so, what does this bode for the monarchy in the longer term? And what also for prime ministers no longer obliged to show deference?
In other words, far from his remarks being simply a careless gaffe, was David Cameron in fact making an unconscious statement about current constitutional realities? Discuss.
Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant.At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, particularly FOI. Latterly he has tended to lead on ecclesiastical and royal issues, for example on the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, at the same time contributing to the recent study on Commons Public Bill Committees led by Meg Russell.