Writing About Brexit: Did the Queen want to sack Boris Johnson?

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 30th September 2019, with support from my Ko-Fi network.Ian Birrell is a former David Cameron speechwriter. He’s now deputy-editor at the paper formerly known as The Independent.

Ian Birrell says, in today’s column in the i, that a “well-placed source” told him that before the Supreme Court’s verdict against the goverrment last week, “The Queen had, for the first time in her reign, sought advice on sacking a prime minister”.

There are two especially interesting things about this.

First, the Queen doesn’t publicly interfere in politics. Constitutionally, she can’t. When acting as Monarch, she does what the government of the day tells her. When the outgoing PM recommends the incoming PM to her as having “the confidence of the Commons”, she appoints him PM because that’s her function. When instructed by the PM to prorogue Parliament, she follows instructions, because, again, that’s her function. Any interference is strictly private and takes place at the weekly briefing the PM is required to give the Queen – an hour’s private access during which the PM is required to tell the Queen what’s really happening and the Queen – is not supposed to say anything, but anything she does say is strictly, absolutely, totally, completely confidential.

If the Queen really did contemplate interfering in politics to the extent of dismissing Boris Johnson as Prime Minister when she had not received a request to do so, that’s actually serious.

Though she may with a well-placed leak be covering her arse after all of the talk that she acted unlawfully in proroguing Parliament.

Because that is the second interesting thing:

The Queen and those who work for her don’t talk. They have an extremely high bar against leaks to the media or anywhere else, and the Queen via her Buckingham Palace staff has been rigorous in slapping down any unauthorised leaks of any kind whatsoever.

If the Queen sought legal advice, three people know about it: the legal expert she spoke to, the Queen herself, and whichever of her staff was in the room at the time, and I cannot emphasise how strongly I am sure that under normal circumstances none of her staff would talk to the Press.

So if this source leaked to Ian Birrell in the sure knowledge it would go public, it might have been a member of the Queen’s staff defending the Queen against acting unlawfully by proroguing Parliament – or of course someone just making stuff up, Ian Birrell may have been told something entirely untrue – but true or false, there should, at some point today, be an official disclaimer from Buckingham Palace to the effect that the Queen –

– Well.

Deplores leaks? Made no such request for legal advice? Is angry that her private conversations have been made public? Wants to find that “well-placed source” and sack them?

Or just a “no comment”?

I said I didn’t think “Johnson lied to the Queen” really matters: I also didn’t think “the Queen acted unlawfully” could be a thing – she did what she was constitutionally required to do.

But if the Queen has turned against Boris Johnson, this would be just about the only way she could show it – with a well-placed leak indicating “not my fault, I did ask if I could sack him even before the Supreme Court ruled he’d acted unlawfully”.

And while constitutionally this doesn’t matter, emotionally, to die-hard Tories and patriotic types, it really, really might. (Though I have to say, I think they’re likely just not to believe it.)

The only source for this – a full 24 hours later – is still Ian Birrell, and Buckingham Palace’s official response was “.”we never comment on rumours” – which does suggest it’s via Birrell’s speechwriter’s imagination, not an actual leak.

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