February 1, 2023

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A defeat for Boris Johnson could test Britain’s unwritten constitution

2 min read

The writer, a former government lawyer, is an FT contributing editor

The political events of this week may test the uncodified (or “unwritten”) constitution of the United Kingdom, and even lead to a rare constitutional crisis.

The current prime minister, Boris Johnson, faces a vote of confidence today among Conservative members of parliament. This vote supposedly has no direct constitutional significance. This is because there is a distinction between the role of party leader of the largest group of members of parliament and that of prime minister. Generally the former will also be the latter, but the connection is not automatic and is capable of being dislocated in certain circumstances.

It is thereby possible for a prime minister not to be the leader of the governing party — or indeed of any party. In 1940, Winston Churchill became prime minister while Neville Chamberlain remained Tory party leader, and in 1995 the then premier John Major resigned as party leader to force a leadership election to take on his internal party critics.

The only person who can dismiss one prime minister and appoint another is the sovereign. The Queen (or King) will invite the person who can command a majority in the House of Commons to form the government, so that the business of government — finance bills and other important legislation — can be properly conducted. When there is an obvious defeat at a general election, the choice is straightforward.

But between general elections, or with a hung parliament where each party is in the minority, the situation is more complicated. And in practice, the monarch will expect members of parliament to sort the situation out themselves, with the prime minister being whoever can put together a majority.

The crown will not, however, intervene unless there is a clear replacement. The memory of what happened in the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 still endures in Buckingham Palace. Then, a governor-general, acting with the…

2022-06-06 08:48:38

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