FT: Don’t let Downing Street call the shots, ma’am

Slug path




Old Teaser


5 May 2010

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler

Just possibly, Friday could be the Queen’s big moment, her 15 minutes of tearful X Factor fame. All those years of training in diplomacy and public affairs and all that hob-nobbing with presidents and prime ministers could culminate in the most important constitutional decision of her reign – that of who should lead the next UK government. And my guess is that she will fluff it.

This constitutional arrangement leaves many people (especially Americans) baffled. They cannot believe that, after an election, the Queen “sends for” whoever she thinks best able to command a Commons majority, and so become prime minister.

Not that there’s usually much doubt. In almost every case, the leader of the majority party is summoned to Buckingham Palace, kisses hands, takes the limo back down the Mall and forms a government. Then the Queen goes back to her corgis.

This time, though, the choice could be very far from clear. Friday morning could give us a hung parliament, the Conservatives with most seats, but short of a majority. To govern, they would have to do deals with the unionists, or the Liberal Democrats, or even build a formal coalition. The Queen would have to decide who should be in charge.

She has faced this situation only once before, in 1974, after Edward Heath asked the electorate “Who governs Britain?” and was answered “Not you, Ted”. Labour got more seats, but Heath hung on, trying to woo Liberals and Unionists, until at last he gave up and the removal vans took him and his grand piano out of Downing Street and brought Harold Wilson in. So the issue resolved itself.

Friday could be much messier. Labour might poll far fewer votes than the Tories but win more seats. Or they may still be able to limp by through deals with the Lib Dems and other parties. Royal flunkies say that the Queen would then have to send for Gordon Brown, even though voters had rejected his Labour party. If so, she might want to double the guard around Buckingham Palace.

Her father, George VI, knew that while monarchs cannot get involved in party politics, they have to be hands-on with politicians. When Clement Attlee presented his 1945 cabinet list, the King allegedly told him: “I think Bevin’s a good man.” Attlee took the King’s advice, and the former barrow boy Ernest Bevin became a very successful foreign secretary.

You won’t see the Queen doing anything so positive.

Our forebears fought for rights such as habeas corpus, trial by jury, the right to silence and the double jeopardy rule to spare us the terror of arbitrary power. We are happy to make our monarchs head of the state, the army and the judiciary, because it prevents politicians usurping those powers and using them against us.

But the Queen has let the executive erode those rights and acquire truly frightening powers, standing by as it has cast aside all restraints. Ministers, the civil service, even the courts have been bullied or sidelined. About 120 MPs owe their official jobs, chauffeur cars, salaries and pensions to Downing Street patronage, so they are pussycats too. The Queen has failed us.

We have moved to a presidential style of government. We talk about “David Cameron” or “Gordon Brown” winning the election when we are supposed to be electing an entire House of Commons. The Americans have a constitution that was designed to accommodate – and restrain – presidential power. We do not. In the past, we have been saved by monarchs reminding politicians that they are mortal. The Queen has not done that.

Some, such as the historian David Starkey, say we need a new constitution with US-style separation of powers, so that the executive no longer sits in the House of Commons. Parliament would then resume its role of representing us and protecting us from the executive. Yet when I see the dog’s breakfast of interest-group special pleading that came out of the European Union’s constitution-writing process, I shudder at the idea.

No, the only solution is to make our current constitution work. That might mean fewer ministers and less Downing Street control over parliament. But it certainly means having a monarch who is prepared to intervene on behalf of the people. One prepared to tell politicians that they cannot ride roughshod over our rights. On this score, the Queen would not win any talent contests.

Published in the FT here.