What is the Queen doing right now? Well she’s probably heaving a sigh of relief and cancelling plans for a relatively quiet weekend in Windsor.
The Queen wasn’t planning to be at Buckingham Palace today and she had even excused herself from the ceremony in Westminster Abbey on Sunday to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The reason this self-imposed exile from the capital is that, like almost everyone else in the UK, she and her advisers were expecting yesterday’s general election to result in a hung parliament.
The Queen has been lucky over the course of her long reign in having been faced with this scenario on only two occasions: in 1974 and 2010.
Whereas four general elections in the first half of the 20th century left no party with a majority in parliament, in the second half, every election except one delivered a majority to either the Conservatives or Labour.
The Queen’s role
The exception was in February 1974, when Labour emerged as the largest party but without a majority. A contemporary record of the negotiations that led to Harold Wilson forming a minority Labour government articulated a number of principles regarding the Queen’s role.
That the sitting prime minister, Edward Heath, had the constitutional right to remain in office until parliament met, even though his party had secured fewer seats than Labour and he was not yet in a position to guarantee that he would be able to command a working majority with the support of other parties.
The Queen should not be required to take action until the sitting prime minister had tendered his resignation.
While she should not be involved in the negotiations leading to a new administration, she should be kept fully informed of the developing situation via her private secretary.
In all of this, the essential point was that the Queen’s political neutrality should not be undermined by any suggestion that she was actively intervening in British politics. These principles were incorporated in the 2010 cabinet manual, drawn up by the then cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, to codify the UK’s existing constitutional “conventions”.
They certainly informed the political choreography of the aftermath of the 2010 general election: despite losing the election, Gordon Brown remained in office for a further five days until he had exhausted the possibilities of reaching a deal with the Liberal Democrats.
And the Queen very conspicuously removed herself to Windsor Castle to signal her unwillingness to play a part in the formation of a new government. Not only had she planned to do the same this time round (the palace now regards it as a “tradition”) but she had very publicly indicated that she did not want to be used as a “prop” to “legitimise” a minority government.
A new element in the current situation is the role of the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which stipulates that general elections must take place at regular five-yearly intervals. An earlier general election can only be triggered under two circumstances: if parliament passes a motion of no confidence in the government (and that motion is not reversed within 14 days) or if a motion calling for an early general election is passed by two-thirds of the whole House.
The monarch’s prerogative power to dissolve parliament has effectively been removed. Yet in some respects this serves the interests of the palace. It means that the Queen has had May 7 in her diary for a number of years now. While this may not sound particularly important, it takes on a greater significance when viewed in the context of the Queen’s 15 other realms.
When, in February 1974, Heath requested a dissolution of parliament, she was forced to interrupt a visit to New Zealand and Australia to be present in the UK for the election and its aftermath. This served as an embarrassing reminder that while the Queen is supposedly equally sovereign of all her realms, some realms are more equal than others.
Furthermore, before the passing of the act, it was generally accepted that she had the right to refuse a prime minister’s request for a dissolution, something that would certainly have involved her in controversy. True, she had never actually done so, but that may, in part, be because she had so rarely been faced with a hung parliament.
It is easy to see how, in such circumstances, the leader of a minority government might have requested a dissolution, only for the Queen to refuse it on the grounds that a new administration could be formed without a general election. So by effectively handing the power of dissolution to parliament itself, the act has arguably made it easier for the Queen to avoid being drawn into the messy politics of a hung parliament.
But while the provisions of the act are broadly good for the palace, they now present Conservative prime minister David Cameron with something of a problem. In the past, even with a narrow majority, he would probably have asked the Queen to dissolve parliament within a year or two in order to try and win a comfortable working majority in a fresh election (as Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson did in March 1966, only 17 months after narrowly scraping into office).
Now, however, the matter has been taken out of both his and the Queen’s hands, and he may have to soldier on in a deeply precarious position for the next five years. Still, that won’t detract from his sense of relief this morning. Last night was a good one from the Conservatives, the SNP and the Queen.