The second question requires a longer answer, which we address below. But by tradition, what Johnson did Wednesday amounted to effectively informing the queen of his plans, not requesting her permission.
Suspending Parliament was clearly a controversial move by Johnson, who is suddenly facing a number of legal and political challenges as a result. The decision to shutter Parliament at this momentous time in the country’s history — Britain is set to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 — sparked a furious backlash and angry talk of a “coup” and “constitutional outrage.”
That sounds like something Britain’s politically neutral monarch would want to steer well clear of.
But it is normal for a new prime minister to ask the monarch to prorogue Parliament so that the government can set out a new legislative agenda. It usually happens every year, resulting in the State Opening of Parliament, which is something akin to the State of the Union, only it involves the queen and a carriage ride and a speech given from a throne. That’s normal here.
What isn’t normal is the length of time that Johnson is suspending Parliament. The five-week break that Johnson asked for is the longest prorogation since 1945. Critics accuse Johnson of trying to silence lawmakers who want to prevent Britain from leaving the European Union without an exit plan.
So why didn’t the 93-year-old monarch simply bat away the request? Or refuse to answer the door when government ministers came knocking at her Scottish estate of Balmoral, where she is on holiday?
Constitutional experts said that the queen could — in theory — have said no to the prime minister. She could even — in theory — refuse to sign government legislation. But she doesn’t.
The queen, by convention, takes advice from her prime minister. The last time a monarch didn’t accept advice was in the 1830s.
Elizabeth II “acts on the advice of her prime minister,” explained Vernon Bogdanor, author of “Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution.” “It’s a rule that has served her throughout her reign. It means that any criticism of her decision is directed at the PM and the government and not the queen.”
It means that when protesters hit the streets this weekend for nationwide protests, they will be demonstrating against Johnson, not the queen. It also means that when campaigners take the government to court — as they are doing in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland — they are arguing about the legality of the advice that Johnson gave to the queen, not whether the queen was right to accept it.
But if Johnson were to ask the queen something that seemed off-the-charts crazy?
“If it were so blatant — suppose the prime minister advised her to execute the leader of the opposition,” then “she could in theory” say no, Bogdanor said. But in general, he said, “the wise course is always to accept the advice of the prime minister.”
Rodney Brazier, a constitutional expert at the University of Manchester, said in a letter to the Times of London that the queen can “warn privately” against advice, “but if the PM persists in his advice the head of state must acquiesce.”
“We should not muddle matters by speaking of the Queen. Boris Johnson alone is responsible for this constitutional fiddle,” he said.
In a recent interview on the BBC, Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, who was at Balmoral on Wednesday to deliver the request to prorogue Parliament, explained how the process worked.
Rees-Mogg said that it was a very formal meeting and that everyone present was standing. A statement was read out in front of the queen, who simply said, “Approved.”