He’s lost the confidence of the country; he’s lost the confidence of his party; he would never get the confidence of the new parliament. So why is Gordon Brown still UK prime minister? And how come we could end up with another “unelected” prime minister? Is it really a “Very Labour coup” as the Daily Telegraph has declared? Can we expect exciting scenes soon of David Cameron climbing atop the tank in front of No 10 and, with revolutionary fervour, demanding an end to the old discredited regime?
Revolutionary because the demands to remove the “squatter” from No 10 are an assault on her majesty’s government, on the British constitution and on the royal prerogative – an assault on the powers and position of the Queen herself.
The prime minister is the Queen’s minister, no one else’s. She can offer the role to anyone she wants, not just choosing from among Gordon Brown and Cameron but Nick Clegg, the balance-holding Liberal Democrat leader too, if she so deems it – and even the Lords Mandelson or Ashcroft (though domiciled status might be regarded as an minimum requirement for this particular job); perhaps Lord Sugar’s moment has come? perhaps a quickie peerage for Baroness Rantzen is in order? The choice belongs wholly to the Queen as the flower of her prerogative powers.
She can ask a party leader – or not a party leader. She can take account of the number of seats a leader might have in parliament; or the popular vote for the leader’s party; or the likelihood of her choice getting the backing of parliament – or she can take account of none of these things. She could choose one man and his dog – if David Blunkett were to hint that he was available. Her interest is in the government her first minister can put together, not in the composition of parliament or the will of the people.
It follows that, once chosen, the prime minister can form a government as he wishes, drawing on his party members in the Commons or on none of them. He can look instead at the panoply of talent across the two Houses. And if he finds them wanting, he can even create peers (using the royal prerogative to do it) and slot them in around the Cabinet table as Brown did in his early, more optimistic, days – the so-called Goats. These were people with a bit of expertise in something, intended to give his “government of all the talents” some backbone.
The prime minister does not need to rely on the will of parliament to govern. He need not worry that his position is threatened by a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Only the Queen’s confidence is required.
At the moment Brown remains the Queen’s prime minister not on the basis of some constitutional right for him to have first dibs when it comes to forming a government but simply because he hasn’t resigned – and the Queen hasn’t sacked him. He is, paradoxically, hiding behind a prerogative that the Queen possesses but which she simply can’t exercise. For the monarch to intervene in any way would be seen as undemocratic – even if the result was Cameron’s commonsense and democratic principle that the leader of the biggest party by votes and seats should have a crack at governing. Even if she were concerned with the will of the people, at present there can be no point in her being concerned with the will of the people.
The prime minister gets to put together her majesty’s government (her majesty’s, not ours). Certainly if the government does not command a majority in parliament things become a bit trickier since it might not get its legislation through. Parliament has the final say on government legislation (oh, apart from the Queen, of course). And that becomes crucial when it comes to budget time. If the prime minister cannot get his finance bill through, might he have powers (the monarch’s powers) to raise money without parliament?
There is precedent. We have been here before – in the 17th century. But there was much chopping off of royal and ministerial heads, much fighting in the fields and braes, invasions and alarums, brother against brother, father against son. And after all that, we still didn’t end up with a constitution that could serve even the most basic needs of a modern democracy.
The Cabinet Manual (pdf) 2011 version (which adds material about the running of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition). It says:
“Prime Ministers hold office unless and until they resign. If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.” (Para 2.8)