Why she can, but won't

Topics Boris Johnson

The isles are full of noises. I mean the British Isles where this is being written. The noises are not only the groans of victims of the Peterloo Massacre of August 16, 1819, but today’s muffled talk of crises and muted whispers of coups. Since they concern parliament and constitutionality, there’s a strong resemblance with the exciting times of Indira Gandhi and Gyani Zail Singh. 

Boris Johnson boisterously prancing about with a House of Commons majority of only one recalls Mrs Gandhi’s defiance after the Allahabad High Court judgment. The pious expected her to resign. Her adversaries hoped she would be toppled. Her fear was a stab in the back from ambitious colleagues if she didn’t attend the Lok Sabha, or attended but couldn’t vote. Her most loyal supporter was Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the president, whose position, Jawaharlal Nehru had claimed, was analogous to that of Britain’s sovereign. Reading what some British politicians expect from Queen Elizabeth, I can hear Zail Singh saying with a smile and a shake of his turbaned head, “I can but I won’t!”.

He meant sacking Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister. The Queen, too, can dismiss Mr Johnson whom she appointed prime minister, according to British constitutional experts. But Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, adds that “it it is incumbent on politicians to resolve this (the present crisis) politically”. With his term drawing to a close, another talking point was whether Rajiv would acquiesce in Gyani standing again. In the event, Zail Singh anticipated Dr Fox’s political prudence. He didn’t sack Rajiv or contest the presidentship again.

Chatting informally in Rashtrapati Bhavan in those tumultuous days, Zail Singh turned out to be an easy man to talk to, considerate of my limited Hindi and surprisingly familiar with British precedents. When I asked about the basis for appointing Rajiv prime minister, he at once brought up the 1956 Suez crisis and the vacuum left by Sir Anthony Eden’s resignation without recommending a successor. Zail Singh believed — quite accurately too —  that the Queen took advice she thought appropriate and appointed the man she felt best able to repair the damage of an ignominious war. Similarly, he felt in 1984 that Rajiv alone could restore public confidence after the tragedy of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. 

He would have appreciated the present challenge to the most aristocratic of democracies and the most democratic of aristocracies. John Bercow, the Commons speaker, vows to “fight with every breath in my body” any move by Mr Johnson to bypass or close down parliament. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, threatens to send Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the opposition) “in a cab to Buckingham Palace to say we’re taking over” if Mr Johnson loses a no-confidence vote and refuses to quit. Mr Corbyn’s own preference is to head a “caretaker government” to continue negotiations with the European Union. Even the egregious Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, hints that his hat is in the prime ministerial ring.

Behind these histrionics is Mr Johnson’s obsessive determination — aided and abetted by his powerful but unpopular strategic adviser Dominic Cummings but by few others of any standing — to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 even without a divorce settlement. Since many MPs, including prominent Conservatives, oppose such an inglorious exit, theorists have begun to look for a solution to the 93-year-old Queen who has been on the throne 67 years, and seen the rise and fall of 13 prime ministers, including the first female incumbent with whom her relations were reportedly correct but cool.

But royal powers exist mainly in theory. Not since Queen Anne in 1707 has any monarch refused assent to a bill. Not since 1834 has any British monarch dismissed a prime minister. No wonder the telephone lines are said to be humming between the Queen’s private secretary, Edward Young, the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, and the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Peter Hill. This “golden triangle” of secretaries is determined to keep the Queen out of controversial entanglements on the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

Already, the former foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has announced that while “King Charles lost his head by flouting the constitution, Mr Johnson will wish to keep his, while some around him are, clearly, losing theirs”. The pointed reference is to the presumptuous Mr Cummings. The direct warning is to the prime minister. But there’s also an oblique message to Her Majesty: 21st century monarchs reign but mustn’t presume to rule.

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