In Depth

What powers does Queen Elizabeth II have?

Hung parliament would leave monarch in a sensitive position once again

The fractious Brexit landscape has placed the Queen at the heart of political debate in 2019.

The prorogation row at the end of summer put her role under scrutiny - and should there be a hung parliament following Thursday’s election, Elizabeth II will be in the spotlight again.

Here is a guide to Her Majesty’s powers.

A constitutional monarchy and the Queen’s role

In a monarchy, the king or queen is the head of state. However, as the UK has a constitutional monarchy, the ability to make and pass legislation belongs to Parliament rather than the Queen.

The monarch retains a symbolic role in government. She formally opens Parliament every year, and when the government passes a bill, it cannot become an Act of Parliament until it receives her stamp of approval, a process called Royal Assent. In reality, though, no monarch has refused to give Royal Assent since 1708, when Queen Anne did so only at the behest of ministers.

As such, Queen Elizabeth II’s formal duties are largely representational, such as embarking on goodwill visits abroad and hosting foreign heads of state. The monarch’s main role is to serve as a vital part of Britain’s “national identity, unity and pride”, says the official royal website, royal.uk.

But the Queen does have a few unique legal privileges. Royal.uk says she “retains the right to claim ownership of any unmarked mute swan swimming in open waters”. She also claims dominion over all whales, sturgeons and dolphins in the waters around England and Wales, doesn’t need a passport to travel abroad, and can drive without a licence.

The Queen’s role in a hung parliament

In a straightforward general election, the Queen would accept the resignation of the outgoing prime minister and then instruct the incoming leader to form a government in her name - but this process is “put in jeopardy if there is uncertainty over the government being formed”, says the Daily Express.

If no single political party wins an overall majority in the House of Commons, the Queen is left in a sensitive position. She must be kept informed about any negotiations to build a coalition, but cannot exercise any personal discretion over the choice of Downing Street’s occupant.

With no majority, the existing PM is given the first chance to create a government, either by trying to govern with a minority of MPs or by forming a coalition or “confidence and supply” arrangement with another party or parties. If this fails, the largest opposition party is usually invited to try to do the same.

In 2010, as Gordon Brown attempted to reach a deal with the Liberal Democrats, the Queen “very conspicuously removed herself to Windsor Castle to signal her unwillingness to play a part in the formation of a new government”, writes Philip Murphy, director of the London-based Institute of Commonwealth Studies, in an article on The Conversation.

David Cameron later admitted that he could not be totally sure about what kind of government he was going to form when he finally met Her Majesty to become PM.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––For a round-up of the most important stories from around the world - and a concise, refreshing and balanced take on the week’s news agenda - try The Week magazine. Start your trial subscription today –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

The Queen and the prime minister

Once a PM is in office, the Queen meets with them weekly and offers counsel. She reads the Queen’s Speech to open Parliament, although this is written by the government, and in normal times her powers are usually exercised on the advice of the PM.

However, as lawyer David Allen Green wrote in the Financial Times earlier this year, “these are not normal times”. In the lead-up to the 31 October Brexit deadline, former attorney-general Dominic Grieve raised the possibility that the Queen could sack Boris Johnson if he refused to comply with Parliament’s new legislation to avoid a no-deal exit from the EU.

“This is now possible in constitutional theory and not inconceivable in the strange politics of the moment,” wrote Green.

Robert Hazell, professor of government and constitution at University College London, told The Guardian that the Queen could dismiss a PM if he or she lost a vote of no confidence and refused to resign. “But she would only do so if the House of Commons indicated clearly who should be appointed as prime minister in his place,” Hazell said.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act gives a 14-day window after a vote of no confidence to find a new PM capable of securing the confidence of the Commons. In practice, the Queen could ask another political leader to put an alternative administration in place that could win the confidence of parliament. “The removal from office of the prime minister is implicit,” says Green.

Recommended

Liz Truss’s five biggest challenges as foreign secretary
Liz Truss
In Depth

Liz Truss’s five biggest challenges as foreign secretary

‘Prepare for winter of discontent’
Today's newspaper front pages
Today’s newspapers

‘Prepare for winter of discontent’

What the UK’s gas crisis means for customers
Gas hob
In Depth

What the UK’s gas crisis means for customers

Five new cancer research breakthroughs
Cancer researchers
Why we’re talking about . . .

Five new cancer research breakthroughs

Popular articles

Doctor says we should not sleep naked because of flatulent spraying
The feet of a person sleeping in a bed
Tall Tales

Doctor says we should not sleep naked because of flatulent spraying

The man tasked with putting a price on 9/11’s lost lives
Kenneth Feinberg at a Congressional hearing
Profile

The man tasked with putting a price on 9/11’s lost lives

Abba returns: how the Swedish supergroup and their ‘Abba-tars’ are taking a chance on a reunion
Abba on stage
In Brief

Abba returns: how the Swedish supergroup and their ‘Abba-tars’ are taking a chance on a reunion

The Week Footer Banner