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Standing meetings are very much in vogue these days, but they weren’t invented by trendy tech companies.
For the last thousand years or so, advisers meeting the monarch, known as Privy Council members, have been forbidden to take a seat—all in the interests of keeping the gatherings short and sweet.
And so it was in the library at Balmoral, Queen Elizabeth’s fairy tale castle in the Scottish Highlands, on Wednesday, when the queen gave her consent to proroguing or suspending Parliament in what, critics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson say, amounts to a coup.
The three privy council members, who had trekked up to Balmoral earlier in the day in the utmost secrecy to prevent rival politicians getting wind of and trying to prevent the maneuver, were not, of course, coming to the queen offering advice.
They were there as proxies for Johnson to request her consent for what, in normal times, would be a fairly run-of-the-mill piece of constitutional business: the prime minister wishing to dissolve the current session of Parliament and start a new one, with a new program for government, to be outlined in a new queen’s speech.
But of course, these are not normal times. With the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union still far from settled, many passionately believe that Johnson has taken an unacceptable liberty in making this move just over 60 days before the Oct. 31 deadline to find a deal and is trying to bounce the U.K. into leaving the EU on that day without agreeing a deal.
The privy council numbers several hundred members (mostly current or former senior members of the government), but just three are required to make a meeting quorate. In this case, the three members selected by Johnson for the mission were all government loyalists, including, notably, the leader of the Commons and arch no-dealer, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Far from being a grand room, the library at Balmoral is a homely and domestic setting for such a pivotal and ceremonial piece of political theater.
Pictures taken in the room in 1970 and 2016 show that it has had the same battered green carpet for at least the intervening 46 years, and there is no reason to suspect Balmoral has been paid a visit by a carpet fitter since that most recent photo call.
The central fireplace is no imposing work of carved grandeur. Rather, it is a simple piece of white marble. In the grate, rather than a roaring blaze, sits an old, slightly marked electric convection heater.
It is reminiscent of the rooms that you find in the house of any old land-rich, cash-poor aristocrat.
The queen likes to wear a kilt while she is in Scotland, and it is likely that this is what she would have been sporting when the three members of the Privy Council, waiting outside, were summoned to enter the room by a sharp electric bell on Thursday afternoon.
The queen treasures her time in Balmoral but keeps on top of her “red boxes” (reading material from the government and documents requiring her signature are sent in red boxes) and other work commitments. A source said that she would not likely have been remotely “put out” by the need to attend to business.
And there were just two pieces of business on hand, according to the official privy council memo issued afterwards.
The first was to approve a handful of new members.
The second was the actioning of the prorogation.
The queen, as is the custom, conveyed her assent to both measures with a single word: “Approved.”
And that was that.
How did she feel about it? Well, as Rees-Mogg told reporters on his way home at Aberdeen Airport, you would have to ask her that.
Temperamentally, the queen is thought to be pro-Brexit. As The Daily Beast exclusively reported, she took to asking her guests before the referendum to name “three reasons” why Britain should be part of Europe.
However, we can be sure that she will not have allowed her personal beliefs and feelings to enter into the decision to approve Johnson’s request— although it might have made agreeing with him easier.
It is unlikely, however, that she would have experienced even a scintilla of doubt about the course of action she must take; the queen may invite a PM to serve, but she cannot and would not ever refuse to comply with his advice or direct request.
And make no mistake, this was, according to precedent, an entirely legal request. The current session of Parliament is the longest since the English Civil War (former PM Theresa May strung it out as she attempted in vain to get her deal through). Johnson, especially as a new PM, is entitled to insist it comes to an end.
Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general and arch-Remainer, described the queen earlier this year as not being merely a “decorative extra.”
But Thursday’s events proved that she is exactly that—and yet the queen still finds herself beseeched by all sides to act.
The opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, attempted to drag the queen into the politics of the Brexit row by demanding that she meet him before agreeing to Johnson’s request to suspend Parliament, warning of the “danger” that her royal prerogative “is being set directly against the wishes of a majority of the House of Commons.”
Corbyn added, “In the circumstances, as the leader of the official opposition, on behalf of all my party members and many other members of Parliament, I request you to grant me a meeting along with other privy counsellors, as a matter of urgency, and before any final decision is taken.”
The sight of a political leader who has espoused Karl Marx as his biggest influence publicly begging the queen to intervene on his behalf is a sign perhaps of how dysfunctional the British system of government has become. Jo Swinson, the leader of the smaller, unequivocally pro-Remain party, the Liberal Democrats, also requested an audience and also appears to have been ignored.
As political theorist Petar Bankov, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, told The Daily Beast: “In some ways this shows the democratic limits of Britain’s uncodified constitution. In contrast to countries which have a codified, written constitution where it is very clear how the different branches of power relate to each other, the uncodified constitution gives a lot of flexibility to the British prime minister.
“In times of political crisis, such flexibility can be both productive and unproductive: On the one hand, it can provide a solution to the crisis, but also it can undermine the democratic foundations of the country in the long term.”
The extraordinary power of the executive in American politics is often lampooned by British commentators, but Johnson on Wednesday showed that he holds all the cards.
The queen has little choice but to do as he asks, even if she were minded not to.
The monarch was famously isolated in Balmoral once before at a time of unprecedented national turbulence—which directly and perilously affected the royal family: the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
On that occasion, she ultimately came back to London and gave a moving TV address memorializing Diana. With Brexit, the queen will not be tempted to make any grand gestures. There is nothing she can do but the same as the rest of us: Sit back and see if Johnson’s gamble pays off.
Thomas Eason, doctoral researcher from the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations, told The Daily Beast: “Johnson has decided to prorogue Parliament for an unnecessarily long time at the very moment the U.K. is due to leave the EU. Parliament could be prorogued for a short period of time, a week would have been sufficient, and Johnson has opted to drag it out for over a month.
“This ultimately makes it more difficult (but not impossible) for MPs that want to try and stop a no-deal Brexit. MPs have less time to play with if Parliament is sitting for less time, so it becomes harder for them to stop the no-deal Brexit many politicians and experts fear.”
“The queen has been put in a difficult position here. Famously she likes to remain above politics, and this has somewhat forced her into it. Prorogation is a prerogative power. Following convention, the government has asked the queen to prorogue Parliament, and that is what she has done. Because of the political nature of this prorogation, there will inevitably be criticism at this decision; however, the anger should be directed at the politicians that are using these mechanisms to avoid being held to account, not the monarch that is merely following convention.”
The immediate reaction suggests Johnson may well have overplayed his hand.
Just a quarter of voters backed the move to shut Parliament as “acceptable,” according to a snap YouGov poll, while nearly half said it was not.
The queen can’t and won’t stop Johnson, but ironically, the people just might.