What happens if Boris Johnson loses a party confidence vote?

Conservative MPs will vote tonight on whether or not to retain Boris Johnson as party leader and Prime Minister. Robert Hazell explains that if Johnson loses, he might step aside immediately or act as caretaker until his replacement is elected. But he might instead stay on and seek to call a snap election, which could place the Queen in the constitutionally awkward position of having to refuse.

The political pundits predict that Boris Johnson will win tonight’s confidence vote amongst the Conservative parliamentary party. But what will happen if he loses, either this time or in a second vote at some point in the future? How long might it take for the Conservative Party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

Under current Conservative Party rules, if more than 50% of all Conservative MPs (currently 180 MPs) vote in support of Boris Johnson, he can stay as party leader and Prime Minister and no new vote can be triggered for 12 months. But the rules can easily be changed. Theresa May won a confidence vote with a majority of 83 in December 2018, but was subsequently forced to announce a timetable for her departure under the threat of a rule change and new vote. She had been under pressure to say that she would go, and finally went after a disastrous European Parliament election result for the Tories in May 2019. Boris Johnson may similarly find that he survives the initial confidence vote, but his long-term position is not secure.

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Braking the law: is there, and should there be, an executive veto over laws made by parliament?

During the Brexit crises of 2019, something exceptionally rare happened twice in less than six months: parliament passed legislation without the government’s consent. But are there constitutional veto mechanisms that governments can use to prevent this? In a new Unit report, Paul Evans explores this question in detail. He summarises his conclusions here.

What do executive vetoes look like? 

Many constitutional democracies include mechanisms whereby a head of state can veto a law made by the legislature, but few of these are absolute vetoes. Most are suspensory, inviting the legislature to think again, but giving it the last word. The US Constitution is the most obvious example of such an arrangement. France has a broadly similar system but, as with many if not most such vetoes, it isn’t used. Some states (for example Iceland) enable the president to put a law to a referendum. Others (such as Ireland) leave the last word with a constitutional court, but only on matters of constitutionality, not on grounds of political disagreement.

In the UK (and most of the old dominions which retain the Queen as head of state) such an arrangement looks impossible. The executive and the legislature are fused – they can’t have different views. The executive as a lawmaker in the UK only exists as an element of the sovereign parliament (the somewhat misleadingly titled ‘Crown-in-Parliament’). The sovereign has no personal stake in the making of law. They must do as parliament decides. As long ago as 1867, Walter Bagehot expressed this constitutional fact with typical rhetorical brio:

The popular theory of the English Constitution involves two errors as to the Sovereign. First, in its oldest form at least, it considers him as an ‘Estate of the Realm’, a separate co-ordinate authority with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This and much else the Sovereign once was, but this he is no longer. That authority could only be exercised by a monarch with a legislative veto. He should be able to reject bills, if not as the House of Commons rejects them, at least as the House of Peers rejects them. But the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her. It is a fiction of the past to ascribe to her legislative power. She has long ceased to have any.

Withholding of royal assent

Nonetheless, when the first stirrings of what was to become the Cooper-Letwin Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019) began in the Commons in early 2019, it was suggested in some quarters that ministers could advise the sovereign to refuse royal assent to an Act agreed upon by parliament. The same argument re-emerged six months later in relation to the Benn-Burt Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (No. 2) 2019), which Boris Johnson insisted on referring to repeatedly as the ‘Surrender Act’. But, despite these theoretical arguments, subsequent events appear to have confirmed that this concept of a royal veto is definitely a dead letter. Queen Anne was the last sovereign to decline the royal assent to an Act passed by parliament – in 1707 (or 1708 if you prefer to apply retrospectively the change of the new year from 25 March to 1 January in 1752). 

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Choosing a Prime Minister: their exits and their entrances

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Seventeen of the Prime Ministers to take office since 1900 left office for reasons other than defeat at a general election. In this blogpost, Rodney Brazier, author of the recently published Choosing a Prime Minister, reflects on how those Prime Ministers have secured and surrendered the keys to Number 10, and the Queen’s role in their appointment.

It’s unlikely that Boris Johnson spends much time thinking about the next election. Thanks largely to him the government obtained an 80-seat Commons majority at the polls just over six months ago, and each member of his Cabinet gave pledges of personal loyalty before getting their jobs. What could possibly go wrong? But if any of his close advisers were to read my book Choosing a Prime Minister then brows might furrow. The book notes that 17 of the two-dozen individuals who have occupied Number 10 since 1900 were forced to leave without any push from the voters. Illness or old age, revolts in the governing party, loss of the confidence of the House of Commons, or personal political blunders all contributed to that high total. Indeed, three of Johnson’s four immediate predecessors (Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May) quit without the electorate’s help. Ill health and party coups were the main, but not at all the only, causes of all those 17 exits. Johnson himself had a brush with death in March. I would bet good money against the present Prime Minister leading the Conservatives into the next general election.  Continue reading

‘Palace letters’ show the Queen did not advise, or encourage, Kerr to sack Whitlam government

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Four decades after the dismissal of the Whitlam government, letters between the Palace and the Governor-General of Australia have been made public. Anne Twomey explains that they show the Queen acted properly, neither advising nor encouraging the government’s dismissal, recommending simply that he obey the Australian Constitution.

For more than four decades, the question has been asked: did the Queen know the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, was about to dismiss the Whitlam government, and did she encourage or support that action? The release of the ‘palace letters’ between Kerr and the palace can now lay that question to rest. The answer was given, unequivocally, by the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, in a letter to Kerr on November 17 1975. He said:

‘If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing The Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.’

Certainly, Kerr had kept the palace up to date with the various developments in Australia. While governors-general usually communicate with the Queen only three or four times a year during ordinary times, it is common during a crisis for updates on the political situation to be made every few days – particularly if there is a risk of the Queen becoming involved or the exercise of a reserve power drawing the palace into the crisis.

In 1975, there were multiple issues that might have drawn the palace into the crisis. First, there was the question of whether Kerr should exercise a reserve power to refuse royal assent to an appropriation bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Fortunately, Whitlam dropped this idea, so that controversy disappeared.

Then there was the question of whether state premiers would advise state governors to refuse to issue the writs for a half-Senate election, and whether Whitlam would then advise the Queen to instruct the governors to issue the writs. This didn’t happen either, because Whitlam did not get to hold his half-Senate election. But the prospect was enough to worry the palace. Continue reading

What happens when the Prime Minister is incapacitated?

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Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital has led to speculation about who is ‘in charge’, if he is not able to fulfil his duties. Former Unit Director Robert Hazell outlines the constitutional position when the serving Prime Minister is incapacitated, arguing that our parliamentary system allows for greater flexiblity than a system in which a president is directly elected.

Since Boris Johnson was admitted to an Intensive Care Unit, the airwaves have been full of speculation about how government will be conducted in his absence, and what would happen if his condition worsens; or worse still, if he fails to recover.

When he formed his government, Boris Johnson appointed Dominic Raab as First Secretary of State as well as Foreign Secretary, and when he went into intensive care Johnson asked Raab to lead the government in his absence. So Dominic Raab will chair meetings of the Cabinet and the main Cabinet committees, and at the end of the discussion he will sum up and pronounce their collective decision. He will represent the government at its regular COVID-19 press briefings, unless he invites another minister to do so: as Johnson himself did in asking Health Secretary Matt Hancock to talk about health issues. And Raab will lead on all the government’s day-to-day business, and in responding to any other emergencies: for example, convening meetings of the National Security Council if there is a flare-up in the Middle East. In all this he will be supported by Sir Mark Sedwill, now a very experienced Cabinet Secretary, and the staff of the Cabinet Office, as well as the civil servants and political staff in Number 10.

What will happen if Johnson is ill for longer than expected? The Cabinet would then have to discuss whether to continue with these temporary arrangements, or start to consider a longer term solution if it seemed unlikely that Johnson could return to office. That leads on to the further question, what would happen if Johnson failed to recover. In those circumstances the Cabinet would then discuss who should be appointed as his successor, and would advise the Queen accordingly. Back in 1963, when Harold Macmillan reluctantly resigned from his hospital bed, it was the party elders (led by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne) who took soundings of the Cabinet, leading to the Queen being advised to appoint Lord Home as his successor. But party leaders are now elected by the party membership rather than emerging through secret soundings, which can lead to a much longer process, typically lasting three months if the leadership election is contested. However, these would be difficult circumstances in which to hold a leadership contest, and it is notable that since the change in their rules the Conservatives have twice managed to choose a new party leader without reference to the wider membership – Michael Howard being elected unopposed in 2003, and Theresa May in 2016, when two of her rival candidates were eliminated in the initial votes by MPs, and two other candidates withdrew. Continue reading