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Suppose that opinions in the UK parliament become so fragmented that no-one can form a government. What powers does the reigning monarch have?

At the moment Queen Elizabeth II is the Commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces.

Could she use this or any of her powers to rule until the politicians have sorted themselves out?

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    In the letter of the law, she's ruling already. In the UK the monarch holds constitutional power as head of state, with the Prime Minister as the first of her advisors. – origimbo Dec 29 '18 at 19:58
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    Hello, Your Royal Highness, welcome to Politics@Stackexchange ;-) – iain Dec 30 '18 at 8:25
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    The question implies that "having a government" is actually important. Belgium got along just fine without one for 541 days a few years ago! In most countries (with the notable exception of the USA), things don't come to a sudden stop just because a few politicians can't agree with each other. – alephzero Dec 30 '18 at 10:43
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    @Valorum alephzero's point was a) that we're much closer constitutionally to Belgium than to the US and b) that in Belgium and the UK government functions can still continue. In the 541 day Belgian "crisis" there was still a government (Leterme stayed on as PM). They just had no Parliamentary majority, so acted as a "caretaker" government. It's no different to the position that Gordon Brown was in after the 2010 election, other than that in his case it only lasted 5 days. – owjburnham Dec 30 '18 at 16:45
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    @Valorum Days since Northern Ireland hasn't had a government: that's seven hundreds and counting. – tmgr Dec 30 '18 at 17:39
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Questions about the power of the Queen come up occasionally on this site. The normal answer goes something like this. The Queen has absolute authority to do as she pleases; however, she does not choose to use this authority, and instead carries out the will of Parliament. If the Queen chose to remove Parliament and rule in its place, this could lead to some serious consequences for the Queen, and a possible revolt; thus the Queen so far has not chosen to use these powers, and it seems somewhat unlikely that this will change.

Additionally, I would question to what extent Parliament is in disarray. While there is some difficulty with respect to Brexit, there is no suggestion that the parties are struggling (more than usual) with the other issues.

The risk of no-one being able to form a government is somewhat limited. If there was a serious risk of this, a no-confidence vote would have been called by the Leader of the Opposition. If such a vote took place, the Conservatives, along with the DUP, would eventually express confidence in the Prime Minister or some other acceptable MP to avoid a general election.

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    This very much, +1. The queen has power in name only. Everyone, including the queen, knows that if the queen ever seriously exercised any of that power she would quickly lose the 'in name only' modifier and just be left with nothing. The queen is not some magic bullet to solve problems with the parliament; other governments have similarly styled parliaments and have the same challenges and don't have a queen to point to. – David Grinberg Dec 30 '18 at 6:39
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    I'd say "The queen has absolute authority to do as she pleases as long as she chooses not to" – Richard Tingle Dec 30 '18 at 9:33
  • @ David Grinberg - I wonder about that. According to yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2015/09/08/… The monarchy's enduring popularity has been confirmed by new YouGov research, with a resounding 68% of the British public believing the institution to be good for the country. - If things got really out of hand I think the current Queen has proved herself trustworthy enough that most people would support her at least for a while. – chasly from UK Dec 30 '18 at 9:58
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    @chaslyfromUK: even if a sufficient swathe of the public were to support a return to absolute monarchy, it is not clear whether other organs of state (the judiciary, the civil service, the police, the army...) would comply. The question therefore describes a constitutional crisis about whose outcome we can only speculate, as they would be truly uncharted waters (at least in modern times). – eggyal Dec 30 '18 at 10:34
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    @DavidGrinberg let's see, removing the “in name only“ makes the sentence go “the queen has power“' I don't think that's what you meant – DonQuiKong Dec 30 '18 at 12:53
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The situation you're asking about is a Hung Parliament and is fairly common. While the Queen can't simply take over government if parliament is hung, she (or rather her ministers) can use Orders in Council to handle any emergencies should they arise. Her ability to intervene in the parliamentary deadlock itself is more complex, and there's an illustrative case where this happened not in the UK but in Australia known as The Dismissal.

Let's look at both possibilities.

Order in Council

@WS2 pointed this power out in a comment.

Should Parliament be in turmoil and an emergency arise, the Queen or one of her Ministers, which includes the Prime Minister, can use her Royal Prerogative (see below) to issue an Order in Council. This is law by royal decree bypassing the usual legislative process. However it is still subject to judicial review, and the legislature can later pass law overriding the degree.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 formalized the process of when an Order in Council can be used for an emergency, how long the order would last, and what constitutes an emergency.

  • threatens serious damage to human welfare in the UK
  • threatens serious damage to the environment of the UK
  • war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the UK

A hung parliament itself is not an emergency. But should an emergency arise while parliament is hung, then the country could be governed by Orders in Council. For example, if the UK were to crash out of the EU and if this caused a financial panic this could qualify as an emergency as a "disruption of a supply of money" (19.2.e). If parliament was hung, an Order of Council could be allowed because "the existing legislation cannot be relied upon without the risk of serious delay" (21.5.a). Such an Order would lapse after 30 days (26.1.a).


Now a bit about what a hung parliament is, how governments are formed, what the Queen's powers are, and the example from Australia known as The Dismissal.

Hung Parliament

The situation you're asking about is a Hung Parliament. They're not uncommon and usually resolve themselves within a few days. One occurred in 2017 when May's gamble to increase their majority failed and her Conservative Party lost their majority, but retained a plurality. Negotiations occurred between the Conservatives and the small DUP to try and form a majority.

Based on her confidence in these negotiations, May formed a minority government. This is governance not only by a party which does not hold a majority, but also where their governing coalition is not particularly strong. The DUP will support the Conservative government on votes of confidence and budget votes critical to hold their government together, known as confidence and supply, but reserve the right to vote as they please on other matters.

There's technically no need to form a governing coalition, members are allowed to vote as they please, but without one its unlikely the Prime Minister would survive a vote of no confidence. Let's talk about that.

Vote Of No Confidence and the Royal Prerogative

Technically, the Queen chooses their Prime Minister for their government. This is all part of the Royal Prerogative; the idea that all governmental power emanates from the sovereign who gets it from God. It is Her Majesty's Government.

In reality the Royal Prerogative is a mish-mash of formal rules and traditions. In practice these have all been delegated to the "advice" and "request" of her ministers and things would have to go very pear-shaped indeed for the Queen to go against her ministers. The Queen could technically choose anyone they wanted as Prime Minister. In practice the sovereign takes the advice of the outgoing Prime Minister who to appoint next.

It's called a "vote of no confidence" because technically it demonstrates the House of Commons "has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government", that is the government formed by the Prime Minster who is technically chosen and empowered by the Queen. This represents a check on the power of the sovereign by the people to the extent that the Queen cannot step foot inside the House of Commons.

Upon a vote of no confidence, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 requires that, unless a new government (whether of the same party as before or not) wins a vote of confidence within 14 days, a general election must be held.

In practice, the Sovereign interfering with parliament would cause turmoil and a Constitutional Crisis. It would throw the country into one of those grey areas that isn't well defined.

Finally we get to Australia and The Dismissal.

The Dismissal

In Australia, Canada, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland the Queen retains significantly more power over their parliaments. Usually the Queen's power is delegated to a Governor-General. And, as in the UK parliament, usually the Governor-General's role is a formality and acts at the "request and advice" of the Prime Minister.

In 1975 Australia found itself with a slim, corrupt Labor majority controlling the House of Representatives, but the opposition controlling the Senate. The Senate blocked important budget bills needed to fund the government until new elections were held, not unlike the current deadlock in the US.

The Prime Minister met with the Governor-General advising the Governor-General to overcome the deadlock with an election of half the Senate. Instead, the Governor-General dismissed the Prime Minister eventually leading to a Double Dissolution of both the House and Senate.

While the Prime Minister was being dismissed, the Senate was resolving to end the deadlock. Oops.

The Australians were, understandably, quite miffed at the interference in their government by the Queen's representative. The Governor-General of Australia was seen as a courtesy and formality. He had intervened against the advise of the Prime Minister, and far, far too soon. Had he waited just an hour the crisis would have resolved itself.

While the Governor-General's actions were embarrassing, there was no major change. There were some protests and a few minor changes to Australia's Constitution, but the situation remains the same. An attempt in 1999 to formally turn Australia into a republic independent of the Queen failed 45% to 55% against.


There are some other, now almost entirely formal, ways the Queen can intervene in parliament.

The Royal Assent

The Royal Assent is required on all legislation enacted by parliament before it becomes law. Prior to 1541 it was required that the sovereign personally read publicly the whole act. King Henry VIII decided that publicly reading out his own order to execute his fifth wife for not telling him about her previous lover wasn't such a hot idea, so the Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 granted this power to specially appointed commissioners. The Royal Assent Act 1967 changed it so parliament is simply notified of the assent.

The last time the Royal Assent was withheld was in 1708.

Dissolving Parliament

Prior to 2011, the sovereign technically retained the sole power to dissolve Parliament. The Prime Minister would request that the sovereign dissolve Parliament and hold new elections, but that became increasingly a formality. The sovereign could, on certain agreed upon conditions such as time of war, refuse the request. The sovereign's ability to dissolve the UK Parliament was formally removed in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

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    Hung parliament don't happen "all the time". They've happened three times in the last century. Not unheard-of, but not all that common either – Valorum Dec 30 '18 at 16:57
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    You have not mentioned an Order in Council. This is an instrument of the monarch on the advice of her Privy Council, composed of senior politicians of all parties, who have taken a special oath. In 2000 during the tanker-drivers' dispute with oil refineries blockaded and petrol supply restricted to doctors and NHS staff, Tony Blair asked the Queen for an "Order in Council" permitting, without Parliament's consent, the requisition of privately owned vehicles to be driven by soldiers. I see some possibility for an Order in Council as a solution should a chaotic Brexit situation arise. – WS2 Dec 30 '18 at 23:20
  • @WS2 I didn't know about that, very good! I did some research and it seems the process was formalized in 2004. I added a section on it. Thank you. – Schwern Dec 31 '18 at 0:07
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    (3) The terms "dissolution" and "dissolve" refer to Parliament, not the government. A government resigns or (in theory) can be dismissed. (4) You mention the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, but I feel it's important to mention that if a government loses a VoNC, a new government must then win a VoC within 14 days. Only if that fails to happen is there a general election (well, or if the 2/3 of the Commons votes for one at any time). – Steve Melnikoff Dec 31 '18 at 15:43
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    @PeterTaylor "Royal Assent Act": Thank you, I misunderstood the article; should have read the act. "Her Majesty's Government": I'll just take out anything about the Cabinet. How's that? – Schwern Dec 31 '18 at 18:24
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No.

This question is normally taken to mean "what powers does the natural body of the queen have in the UK constitution". The answer is "none". She must follow the advice of her Ministers.

It is not clear what you call "disarray". If you mean political parties splitting up, repeated votes of confidence, mass resignations form Cabinet. I.e. politics continuing in disarray, then no the Queen has no reserve powers. She acts only according to the advice of her Ministers.

It is absolutely unconstitutional for the Queen to rule as an absolute monarch "until the politicians have sorted it out."

If you mean the much much less likely situation of an illegal and unconstitutional government (say, for example, the Prime Minister ordering the army to round up and execute the opposition party). Then we are dealing with a situation that is beyond "what powers does the Queen have" and to a situation where "who will the people with guns chose to obey". This is by definition not covered by the constitution.

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    Please provide some citations. I'm not saying you're wrong, but you use terms like "unconstitutional" despite the fact that (AFAIK) we have no written constitution. Similarly, you claim that the Queen must follow the advice of her Ministers. I do not necessarily doubt this, but can you tell us what law requires this, and how she does not have authority to unilaterally override such a law? – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 30 '18 at 1:17
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    Agree with @LightnessRacesinOrbit. Whilst this is how things “must” be, they “must” only be so by constitutional convention (and such conventions can and do develop and change over time). So, if the reigning monarch were to act against that convention, it would likely precipitate a constitutional crisis in the sense that there’s no definite understanding of what should then happen. – eggyal Dec 30 '18 at 1:45
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    Right, and this question (by my understanding) is about that scenario. IMO the answer is really just begging the question. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 30 '18 at 1:58
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit, the Coronation Oath Act 1688? (See in particular, "the Laws and Customs of the same"). (Also: we do have a written constitution: what we don't have is a single document which presents it in a unified way). – Peter Taylor Dec 31 '18 at 11:32
  • @PeterTaylor That oath doesn't contain any text promising to devolve actual governing to Parliament, though it is possible that the laws it refers to do, regarding which I shall be charitable and defer to your judgement! And, indeed, we have what is known as an unwritten constitution because in lieu there are various laws and whatnot that serve the purpose a written constitution would. But I suppose that's semantics. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 31 '18 at 14:12
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The UK hasn't had a revolution or a new constitution recently to take the monarch's royal prerogative away, but custom puts most of her powers into the hands of HM government and the parliament.

So what we would be talking about is the monarch breaking centuries-old custom to rule directly. Right now I would bet that the vast majority of citizens, officials, and soldiers would not accept direct rule, even if they are loyal to the Queen in her current role.

  • I think you mean "direct rule." – phoog Dec 29 '18 at 22:51
  • @phoog, edited. – o.m. Dec 30 '18 at 6:16
  • Then what purpose does it serve to swear true allegiance to the queen? Perhaps they need a refresher on the meaning of the oath? – Chaim Eliyah Dec 31 '18 at 4:32
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    @ChaimEliyah, if it were Henry VIII instead of Elisabeth II, the Brits would need a revolution right now. The current monarch understands that she is de facto in a constitutional monarchy even if she isn't de jure in one. – o.m. Dec 31 '18 at 7:12
  • I might agree with your second statement, given the backdrop of 20th century politics, but why would they need a revolution? And does "needing" a revolution somehow change the oath? Also, in order of loyalty, wouldn't the Crown come first, and the beleaguered parliament a distant second? – Chaim Eliyah Dec 31 '18 at 7:17
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One dimension to this is that Her Majesty is, at least in part of the UK, Queen of Scots. That is, her authority is over the people, not the land, and derives explicitly from "the people" of Scotland (historically, that meant, via the aristocracy). That authority could be withdrawn, as it was (from Mary) in "Act Anent the demission of the Crown in favour of our Sovereign Lord, and his Majesty's Coronation 1567". While (a majority of) the lords were the instigators of this Act, if "crowds of spectators denounced her as an adulteress and murderer" it had at least the appearance of a popular decision.

Now that means that in principle both the monarchy and the democratic parliament, at least in Scotland, derive their authority from the people.

If one were to collapse in disarray, it is at least hypothetically possible that the other - if careful to maintain the support of the Scottish people - could take over. Especially if the former party appears to be trying their utmost to lose that support.

However. The "support of the Scottish people" is somewhat clearly behind remaining in the EU, and rather less clear about remaining within the UK (partly because at the time of the Independence referendum, voters were told that the only way to remain in the EU was to vote against indepedence from the UK).

Neither of these policies seem well aligned with the priorities of the current monarchy, making such an outcome highly unlikely even without considering the influence of or impact on the rest of the UK.

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