The Counsellors of State Bill: an elegant solution, but a temporary one

The House of Lords yesterday debated the merits of the Counsellors of State Bill, which seeks to add Princess Anne and Prince Edward to the list of people that can act when the monarch is unable to do so. As Craig Prescott explains, this is a neat solution, but a temporary one.

The start of a new reign inevitably brings change to the monarchy. One specific change is that the monarch will once again travel overseas, including visits to some of the 14 other countries that also have a new head of state.

But what about the monarch’s constitutional and legal role while they are away? This role includes the granting of royal assent to legislation, appointment of ministers, ratification of treaties, and appointment of judges and diplomats. Many of these functions require the personal signature of the monarch (the royal sign manual), or in the case of holding Privy Council meetings and the state opening of parliament, their personal participation. This reflects how the monarch, as head of state, remains a central part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. It is pivotal to the machinery of government that the royal authority is always available to grant the final, formal legal approval to wide range of decisions made by government and parliament.

The necessary continuity is provided by the Regency Act 1937, supplemented by the Regency Acts 1943 and 1953. If the monarch is overseas, or is unwell and unable to conduct their duties, Counsellors of State can be appointed to exercise the royal functions. During the reign of Elizabeth II, Counsellors of State were appointed over 100 times, facilitating the Queen’s extensive overseas travel and establishing her position on the international stage.

The Regency Acts provide that the Counsellors of State are the spouse of the monarch and the first four in the line of succession, of full age, domiciled in the UK. For the heir apparent or heir presumptive, the Regency Act 1943 allowed for then Princess Elizabeth to become a Counsellor of State when she became 18, otherwise ‘full age’ for these purposes is 21. The 1943 Act also allowed for any potential Counsellor of State to be excluded if they are overseas during the period of appointment. This provision was introduced so that Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, would be excepted while Governor-General of Australia to prevent any potential conflict between that role and his position as a Counsellor of State.

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What Happens if Boris Johnson loses the confidence of his Cabinet, or his MPs?

Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street appears to be in its final days, but how it will end remains unclear. Robert Hazell examines the possibilities. How long will a leadership election take? Could there be a caretaker Prime Minister? What happens if Johnson tries to call a snap general election?

If Boris Johnson loses a confidence vote among Conservative MPs, he is not able to stand again. Any other Conservative MP can then stand for the party leadership. How long it will take for the party to elect a new leader will depend on the number of candidates standing, and whether the vote goes to a second stage ballot of all party members.  Party rules prescribe that Conservative MPs vote initially in a series of ballots to select two candidates, who then go forward to a postal ballot of all party members for the final decision. In 2005 it took two months for David Cameron to be elected leader, defeating David Davis in the postal ballot. In 2019 it took six and a half weeks for Boris Johnson to be elected, defeating Jeremy Hunt. It therefore seems unlikely that we will know who is the new Conservative leader (and Prime Minister) until September. But when Cameron announced his resignation in June 2016, it took just 17 days for Theresa May to emerge as the new leader, because Andrea Leadsom stood down as the second candidate in the postal ballot.

Time is being finally called on Boris Johnson’s premiership.  The initial trickle of ministerial resignations has become a steady stream; a delegation of Cabinet ministers has reportedly called on him to resign; if he doesn’t take the hint, the 1922 Committee seems likely to hold an early second confidence vote in his leadership.   But what will happen if he does resign, or if he loses the confidence of a majority of Conservative MPs?  How long might it take for the Conservative party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

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