When Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday to suspend the British Parliament, limiting lawmakers' ability to block his plan to take the country out of the European Union by October 31, many people hoped she would decline his request.
On social media, those opposed to the move called for the queen to intervene, and opposition lawmakers scrambled, unsuccessfully, to get a meeting with the monarch before she approved the suspension.
Yet constitutional experts say that Queen Elizabeth, the world's longest-serving monarch, had little sway over the matter. As the head of state in a constitutional monarchy, she is considered politically neutral, with limited decision-making powers.
"What it means in practice is that she basically doesn't have any discretion," said Asif Hameed, a lecturer in law at the University of Southampton. "In our political system she is the head of state, but she is not supposed to be governing — that's left to the elected government."
In this case, two constitutional conventions came into play: One that says the monarch is obliged to follow the advice of the government in power, and another that requires her political neutrality.
So when Johnson approached the queen about suspending Parliament, she was obligated to act on that advice.
"In a democratic system, you can't expect the unelected head of state — whose whole legitimacy depends on her being outside of the political system — you can't expect that person to be your guardian of democracy," said Michael Gordon, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Liverpool.
A request to suspend Parliament is standard for beginning a new session of Parliament, but the differences this time are the length of the break and its introduction at a time when lawmakers were scrambling to make decisions before the October 31 Brexit deadline.
With lawmakers, and the public, starkly divided over Brexit, Johnson's request put the queen squarely in the middle of a heated issue.
"By pursuing a controversial course of action — which this absolutely is, this prorogation of Parliament which requires the queen to formally approve it — the government has kind of drawn her into this," Gordon said.
And because the Brexit process has become so divisive, the queen's actions — even when largely symbolic — have come to hold more weight, said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a British think tank.
"For her to be seen, even if it isn't the truth, as being part of a process in which people are so invested emotionally is just not a good place objectively for the monarchy and for she herself to be in," he said.
Some have suggested that the queen's heir, Prince Charles, might prove to be a more politically involved monarch, since he has previously offered his opinions on sensitive issues. But in her 6 1/2 decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth has cultivated a strongly apolitical persona.
She does not typically intervene other than to make opaque references to the political climate. In January, she urged Britons to find "common ground" — a veiled reference to the deep political divisions as lawmakers failed to agree on a Brexit strategy — though never directly mentioned the country's withdrawal from Europe.
A spokeswoman for Buckingham Palace declined Thursday to comment on the suspension of Parliament.
Johnson's manoeuvre Wednesday swiftly ignited outrage against his action as prime minister. And when the queen heeded his request to suspend — or prorogue — Parliament, the politically contentious nature of the move left her open to criticism as well.
"If it so happens the government advises something that is deeply controversial, then this can be sort of the knock-on effect," said Hameed, the law lecturer. "Merely following that advice that she is supposed to, she can be dragged into something that is politically quite ugly."
Lawmakers angered by Johnson's decision had called on the queen to do something — anything — to halt the move. Some scrambled to request meetings with her, but their efforts came too late, and experts say they would probably have not have made a difference.
And the prorogation of Parliament may be the first of several instances in the coming weeks in which the queen could find herself involved in the Brexit process, at least in a formal way.
"This first controversy that the queen has been drawn into, in some ways, is a relatively simple one," Gordon said, "compared to the kinds of things that could hypothetically be not that much further down the line."
If lawmakers try to pass legislation requiring the prime minister to seek a Brexit extension to avoid leaving the European Union without a deal, the final stage of that legislative process would be the queen's approval. It is possible that Johnson's government could advise her not to approve the legislation.
Or, if lawmakers succeeded in securing a vote of no confidence and Johnson were unable to form a new government but refused to resign, the queen could be asked to intervene.
"That could be an even bigger clash for her," Gordon said.
Written by: Megan Specia
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