Why the Queen Didn’t Say No to Boris Johnson

The country’s monarch is the head of state, but her role is largely ceremonial, and she tries to stay out of politics.

Boris Johnson shakes hands with Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace.
Queen Elizabeth II greets Boris Johnson in Buckingham Palace. (Victoria Jones / Reuters)

Throughout her 66-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has been decidedly neutral. She doesn’t engage in political matters, nor does she share her political views. She has always, as is customary among British monarchs, left the politics to the politicians.

But Brexit has upturned any conception of normalcy in Britain. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before that applied to Buckingham Palace as well.

It finally did last week, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he would seek to temporarily suspend, or prorogue, Parliament until October 14—an otherwise routine procedure taken at a crucial moment, just weeks before the United Kingdom’s potentially chaotic exit from the European Union.

Though the decision to prorogue Parliament falls squarely on 10 Downing Street, it requires royal approval, which the Queen swiftly granted. But the procedural move was read by some as tacit approval from Buckingham Palace; several headlines framed the suspension as one in which the Queen had a say.

The reality, however, is much more mundane.

What role does the Queen play in British government?

The Queen’s role is largely a ceremonial one, limited to duties such as approving new laws and presiding over the opening and dissolving of Parliament. Every decision she makes on matters of politics is guided by the advice she receives from government ministers (which is why, when Johnson asked the Queen to suspend Parliament, she acceded). Though the Queen holds weekly meetings with the prime minister, during which she retains the right to be consulted on issues of the day, final decisions are, in reality, not up to her.

Indeed, the Queen’s Speech, which the monarch delivers at the start of each new parliamentary session to lay out the government’s policy agenda, isn’t written by the Queen at all—it’s drafted by the government. And royal assent, which must be granted for any legislation approved by Parliament to become law, hasn’t been refused since 1708.

So how does the Queen express her views?

She doesn’t. Although the Queen is the United Kingdom’s head of state, she is not its head of government—that role is filled by the prime minister. By avoiding party politics, she is able to position the monarchy as a unifying force in the country—which, at a time when Britain is bitterly divided over its looming exit from the EU, is badly needed.

“Neutrality is the essence of being a symbol of national unity,” Richard Fitzwilliams, an expert on the royal family, told me. “The only time the Queen puts her own words into public utterance is [in] her Christmas message,” an annual broadcast that doesn’t typically touch on politics or policy.

What about the rest of the royal family?

Though the emphasis on political neutrality applies to the whole royal family, there have been a few exceptions. Prince Charles, for example, has boycotted state banquets involving China in protest of the country’s human-rights abuses. The heir to the throne has also publicly spoken out about genetically modified foods and climate change. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have been similarly vocal on environmental issues.

“From time to time, issues have been taken up by members of the royal family,” Fitzwilliams said, before noting that expectations are higher for a ruling monarch. “The idea that Charles could one day be an activist king was always rubbish.”

Surely the Queen has a position on Brexit, though ... Right?

Many would like to think so. For years, people have argued that Brexit is simply too big for the royal family to ignore and that the Queen, through her fashion choices or otherwise, has been quietly signaling her position on the issue that has divided the nation. While those loyal to the Brexit cause have suggested that the Queen is secretly on their side, those opposed to it have held out hope that she might yet swoop in to join theirs.

The reality is, we’ll likely never know the Queen’s political views (if, indeed, she has any).

How’s that political neutrality working out so far?

It hasn’t been easy. In the case of Johnson’s controversial decision to prorogue Parliament, the Queen was bound by convention and precedent to grant his request. Had she refused to suspend Parliament against his advice, as some had hoped, a constitutional crisis would have been the likely result.

“That was what the English civil war was all about,” Robert Hazell, a professor of government and the constitution at University College London, told me of the 17th-century conflict, which established the precedent that the monarchy cannot govern without Parliament’s consent. “King Charles I lost [the war], and lost his head.”

Isn’t Britain already in a crisis?

The country is certainly in the midst of a political crisis, though it hasn’t reached the point of becoming a constitutional one—at least not yet. That could change if Johnson “starts playing fast and loose” with accepted norms and conventions, Hazell said. One possible scenario that could fall within constitutional-crisis territory is the prime minister advising the Queen against giving royal assent to a bill that would limit his ability to pursue a no-deal Brexit. Another is Johnson refusing to quit if he loses a vote of confidence in his government.

“To the extent that he’s willing to break conventions,” Hazell said, “he does risk asking the Queen to do things which would inevitably then draw her into politics.”

Is the Queen allowed to ignore a prime minister’s advice?

Not really. Much in the same way the prime minister is bound by certain norms and conventions of British politics, the Queen, too, is duty bound by tradition and precedents.

The only scenario that would prevent the Queen from taking her prime minister’s advice would be if it were demonstrated that the prime minister no longer commands the confidence of a majority of lawmakers in Parliament (something that can no longer be taken for granted after the Conservatives lost their governing majority). Without the confidence of the House of Commons, “any advice [Johnson] offers to the Queen … is no longer binding,” Hazell said. “That is the sheet anchor ... of democratic accountability.”

Ultimately, the last place the Queen wants to be, on the brink of a looming national crisis, is between her prime minister and Parliament.