These constitutional realities will determine whether Johnson survives as PMby George Peretz / August 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
When and how can the House of Commons sack a government? That is the question lying behind the not always well-informed debate about whether, in the last resort, the Commons might enforce its will to avoid a no-deal Brexit, dismissing a government that seems to have locked itself into that outcome and thrown away the key. In trying to understand the UK constitution’s answer, it is helpful to have four principles in mind.
1. There must always be a prime minister: the Queen’s government must be carried on. That means that a PM not only need not, but cannot, resign unless a successor willing to take office and capable of surviving can be appointed. (Here that means that the new PM will be able to win, at least for the moment, a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.) As to how it is established whether a putative government is capable of surviving, there are various ways in which that could be made clear, ranging from passing a formal Commons motion asking the Queen to invite X to be PM, to a letter to the same effect to the Times signed by 326 MPs.
2. The Queen must not be required to take a controversial decision. This is a very strong political convention: and it probably distinguishes the UK from other Commonwealth countries where the Queen is nominally Head of State but where her role is in fact discharged by a governor general. Governors general are typically ex-politicians, and the idea that they might take a controversial decision is not outrageous—indeed several have done so (an example is given in 4 below). The Queen, after 67 years of not putting a constitutional foot wrong, and commanding stratospheric levels of public esteem, is different.
3. The government must leave office if it loses a vote of no confidence or equivalent (such as losing a Budget or vote on a Queen’s Speech). It is important to note that that is qualified by the first principle: if there is no alternative PM available or willing to take office, the government must stay on until either it obtains confidence or an alternative PM emerges. So when Callaghan lost a vote of confidence in 1979, it was right for him not to resign but rather to advise the Queen to dissolve parliament: there was no…