by DAVID FICKLING/ pic by BLOOMBERG
BORIS Johnson (picture) has spent the past week hinting that he’d be prepared to defy an Act of Parliament that would force him to request a third extension to the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU).
Now, he’s challenging the queen to a constitutional duel. The fate of an Australian prime minister (PM) 44 years ago suggests that could be a fatal mistake.
The British PM will refuse to leave office if he loses a vote of no confidence in Parliament, Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper reported at the weekend. His office is preparing legal advice that the monarch’s constitutional powers wouldn’t permit her to sack him, The Sun newspaper reported yesterday.
That reasoning may be legally flawed, as Charlie Falconer, the former Cabinet minister in charge of Britain’s courts has argued. But the high-stakes strategy may still seem to have merit.
Britain’s constitutional monarchs have been wary of intervening in politics since the 17th century. By squatting in office, perhaps Johnson could jam the gears of politics until Oct 31, when the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless an extension or withdrawal agreement has been concluded.
In 1975, Australia PM Gough Whitlam, also found himself in a deadlock.
Following the death of a senator in his Labor Party, he lost the ability to pass appropriation bills through the Upper House and fund the government.
Rather than follow Whitlam’s preferred solution of a partial Senate election, Governor General John Kerr — the queen’s official representative in Australia — dismissed him and appointed the leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, as a caretaker.
As a condition of Fraser’s appointment, Kerr required him to first guarantee the passage of the appropriation bills, and then call fresh elections. In other words, Fraser was required to end the immediate crisis so that an election wouldn’t take place against the backdrop of a national emergency.
Commonwealth countries tend to look to each other for legal precedents, especially in circumstances where there are few domestic analogies. That makes the manner of Whitlam’s dismissal relevant to the Brexit situation now.
For one thing, it underlines the fact that the choice of PM ultimately belongs to the monarch. In a scenario where Johnson refuses to leave office after losing a vote of no confidence, he might hope that bickering among MPs would prevent Parliament selecting a figure to serve as caretaker PM. The Whitlam example suggests that there’s no need for the Crown to be so quiescent. That sort of process may indeed be the best way to apply the UK’s constitutional rules that Johnson hopes will bind the queen’s hands.
One way to fulfil this would be to appoint a middle-of-the-road figure as caretaker, and require that he seeks an extension of the Article 50 period for leaving the EU to Jan 31 before calling fresh elections.
The odds of the UK exiting the EU without a deal are almost certainly higher if Parliament gets bogged down on inter-party negotiations about who should lead a caretaker government.
By directly choosing a successor to Johnson, that process would be short-circuited, forcing Brexit-leaning Labour MPs to actively back a vote of no confidence to remove the caretaker rather than allow parliamentary inertia to get the blame.
Such a situation would hardly be the end of the current drama. It’s anyone’s guess what result would emerge from fresh elections in the UK, given the highly unpredictable results of ballots in 2015 and 2017; the way that Brexit has scrambled the polling positions of the major parties; and the fact that 108 out of 642 voting members of the Commons are minor-party or independent MPs.
Still, it would at least cut the wires on the ticking constitutional time bomb set to explode on Oct 31 and give the people a final opportunity to elect a government capable of fashioning a more lasting relationship with the EU. If Johnson tries to force the monarch’s hand, he shouldn’t be surprised to find a royal flush laid down against him. — Bloomberg
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